Is there a case for the pronoun “themself”?

Posted by on May 23, 2012

In April this year, Bristol City Council distributed a leaflet in the run-up to the referendum on whether voters would like a directly elected Mayor (as in London). They inform us that:

The elected Mayor would be in addition to the 70 elected councillors, and would not be a councillor themselves.

The reflexive pronoun themselves sounds strange here, perhaps because it looks so very plural – it is plural twice over, if you like (them and selves). Perhaps too, the pamphlet is dealing with an odd state of affairs. Normally, when you refer to the Mayor, he or she is already the Mayor, with a known identity and gender. But here there is no Mayor; there aren’t even any candidates, and may never be. So themselves refers back to a very shaky entity indeed, with a purely hypothetical existence.

To backtrack a little, pronouns, like prepositions, are a ‘closed’ class, at least in Standard English. The personal pronouns (I, you he, she, it, we, they) are a neat little set, as are the ‘object’ ones (me, him, her etc) and the reflexives (myself, herself, ourselves etc). Pronouns are even more fixed than prepositions, being largely mutually defining and mutually exclusive. This means, for example – to put it simply – that part of the meaning of you is ‘not me’, him entails ‘not her’, and they contrasts grammatically with them.

Yet pronouns are not completely clear-cut, especially where the singular-plural distinction is concerned. It is perfectly acceptable nowadays to use the pronouns they, them, and themselves (and the determiner their) with a singular meaning, to refer back to an unspecified or unknown person in a gender-neutral way. The referent is usually an indefinite pronoun like someone, anyone, or everyone, or a ‘person’ noun of either gender, e.g. any child, a person, the client.

The ‘singular’ use of they, them, and themselves partly solves the problems raised by the lack of a gender-neutral pronoun in English. It is no longer acceptable to use he or him when the referent could be either male or female, and expressions like he or she and himself or herself are clumsy and unmanageable.

But the familiar gender-neutral alternatives, and especially themselves, can also be unwieldy. These examples are from the ukWaC corpus (via Skylight):

Three main areas were covered, plus a small questionnaire completed by the child themselves.
The message for us all, as far as our pensions goes, is that each individual must look after themselves!

So would themself be more ‘logical’ than themselves in such cases? Certainly there is some corpus evidence for it – for example there are 389 matches in ukWaC, 16 in a sample of Wikipedia, and 27 in the British National Corpus. The frequency is fairly low overall (about 0.2 instances per million words), but there may well be a future for this alternative. Look at these examples:

Why would anyone want to make themself miserable? We do it all the time…
If the person talks of harming themself or committing suicide, take this seriously.
Each applicant would need to present themself to a Diabetics Specialist …
Who wants to go through life by themself?

Themself is also defined in the major online and print dictionaries, all of which state either that “most people consider this use incorrect” (Macmillan), or that it is not accepted/acceptable in Standard English. Oxford gives the additional information that themself was first recorded in the 14th century, and that the singular gender-neutral sense has recently re-emerged.

The Canadian Department of Justice, considering whether themself should be used in legislation, concludes that although “it may perhaps be a trend to watch, its use does not seem widespread enough to justify advocating it in legislative texts for the time being”.

And the verdict? Well, themself seems to be doing quite nicely for itself, as far as recent corpus evidence goes, and it is quite  possible that the usage notes describing it as ‘non-standard’ or ‘incorrect’ will gradually disappear from the dictionary.

A final footnote: there are 228 matches for ourself in the ukWaC corpus, suggesting that the future holds interesting possibilities for other ‘singular’ reflexive pronouns!

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Comments (7)
  • I consider it a logical extension of singular they, and I’ve used it on occasion. Not in formal contexts, though. In an earlier post on pronoun problems I called it non-standard, but I’d like to see its profile and status rise.

    Posted by Stan on 24th May, 2012
  • As a Bristol resident, I’m never quite sure what sort of English to expect. A city where ‘Listen to him’ becomes ‘Ark at ‘e’…

    Posted by Finn on 24th May, 2012
  • I think we have to accept that language evolves. first changes are always considered informal and they slowly become accepted and standarised. I bet this is what will happen to “themself” although I am not so certain about the other plural forms ( as there doesn´t seem to be much point in using them). Yet, time will tell…

    Posted by Miss White on 31st May, 2012
  • […] Francis at Macmillan Dictionary Blog posed the question: Is there a case for the pronoun themself? The example she leads with, from a Bristol City Council […]

    Posted by Reflecting on the reflexive pronoun ‘themself’ « Sentence first on 31st May, 2012
  • On checking my (language) blog I find I’ve used it (rightly or wrongly) three times:

    ‘This could be … by the speaker themself in the same utterance’
    ‘It’s as though the speaker is thinking of themself as somebody else …’
    ‘Say whether the person mentioned should necessarily do it themself, Yes or No.’

    I did wonder when the spell checker turned it down, but ‘themselves’ would have sounded strange to me here.

    Posted by Warsaw Will on 1st June, 2012
  • I had forgotten ‘themself’ and it makes perfect sense! We were advised as English students long, long ago that if we didn’t want to specify gender then it was perfectly acceptable to use the plural pronoun with a singular noun, as in “the child wanted to visit the zoo by themselves”. I often wondered why ‘themself’ wasn’t recommended. Now that you’ve reminded me of its usefulness, I am going to use it regularly. I had forgotten how well it sits with me!

    Posted by Helen on 14th June, 2012
  • We recently got a leaflet through the letterbox. It’s called Checkatrade, and lists a few supposedly reputable tradespeople in our area. It also has a little form you can fill in to recommend tradespeople who’ve given you a good service, or for tradespeople to request inclusion in future leaflets. The box they have to tick has the rubric: “I am a local trades person who consider themselves reputable”. They’ve resolutely kept the verb agreeing with the singular “I” (though personally I’m a person who considers that they shouldn’t have), but either way, there’s a terrible tangle here. …a local trades person who considers themselves… sounds almost as bad as …a local trades person who consider themselves… but neither is in any way elegant. “Themself” might help out here, but the simplest solution would be to label the box “I am a reputable local sales person” and avoid the issue altogether.

    Posted by Stephen on 31st January, 2013
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