March 08, 2007


In my recent posting on generic pronouns, I looked at the following sentence from Elsa Dixler:

(1) Every artist "becomes" herself as she matures...

(with forms of feminine singular she used for generic reference) and contemplated various alternatives, including one with "singular they":

(2) Every artist "becomes" themselves as they mature...

which I found grotesque.  My mailbox is now filling up with suggestions that I should have gone for "singular themself":

(3) Every artist "becomes" themself as they mature...

I omitted this possibility in the hope that I could achieve a brief and quick posting, without going into an assortment of side issues.  But, once again, that is not to be.

The very short response to my correspondents is that singular themself is not standard.  As MWDEU (1989) puts it (p. 898):

This use of themself is similar to the use of they, their, and them in reference to singular terms...  Such use of they, their, and them is old and well established, but this use is not.

Wilson's Columbia Guide (1993) is stern on the matter (p. 435):

Theirselves and themself for themselves are limited to Vulgar English or imitations of it; both are shibboleths.

adding that

Themself can also occur as an unfortunate result of trying to avoid using a gender-explicit reflexive pronoun by using a blend of the plural them with the singular self.  The choices are themselves or himself or herself or both the last two...

(Wilson is perfectly happy with singular they.  In fact, he recommends it, in all but the most formal writing.)

Burchfield's Fowler's (1996, rev. 1998) is more moderate.  Noting that themself had an earlier history, but largely disappeared from sight after the 16th century, Burchfield reports (p. 777):

A remarkable by-product of the search for gender-neutral pronouns, themself re-emerged in the 1980s.  It is a minority form, but one that turns up from time to time...  This new pronominal form can hardly be viewed as standard--yet.

(On p. 779, Burchfield accepts singular they, though with a hint of reluctance.)

Here on Language Log, references to singular themself have been few, mostly in passing, though there is one use of it by Geoff Pullum in a defense of generic they (it's in Geoff's second example):

The commonest way to get around the gender problem here is to use singular they: Was it your father or your mother who broke their leg on a ski trip?; Either the husband or the wife has perjured themself. Shakespeare used it; Jane Austen used it; loads of fine authors use it. Get used to it. And if you have a usage book like Strunk and White that declares singular they to be an error, throw that book away.

Shakespeare and Austen certainly used singular they, but so far as I know neither of them used singular themself.

The linguistic literature on singular themself is pretty sparse.  The most extensive study I know of is a Stanford honors thesis by Joel Wallenberg, written under my direction in 2003 and unfortunately not generally available.  He used both corpus searches and informant judgments, collected by e-mail, to map out the variation in singular themself (themself-I, I for "individual", as in (3) above); themselves with singular reference (themselves-I, as in (2) above); and two non-standard reflexives you might not have suspected were out there, themself and ourself with PLURAL reference (themself-N and ourself-N, N for "numerous"), as in The kids hurt themself and We hurt ourself.  (In this notation, the standard reflexives are themselves-N and ourselves-N.)

His 33 informants sorted themselves into groups on several dimensions.  People in the two largest groups accepted both themselves-I and themself-I.  The next largest group accepted themself-I but NOT the prescribed standard themselves-I.  In fact, only 4 of the 33 did not accept themself-I, suggesting that Burchfield is probably right in thinking that themself-I is the wave of the future.

Back to the New York Times.  Would it countenance themself-I?  Well, yes, but not often, and mostly in material quoted from speech, plus occasionally in "light" contexts (sports, feature stories, and the like).  A search through the archives pulled up only 38 occurrences since 1981, which is less than two per year.  Some of these are duplicates, one is from a Safire column deprecating the usage, and most of the rest are in material quoted from speech.  I suspect that if Dixler had used (3) above, it would have been altered to (2).

[More mail, now suggesting the variant theirself.  This is a double loser: possessive instead of accusative first element, and singular instead of plural second element.  Raw Google web statistics bear this out:

themselves (both parts standard) 138,000,000

  themself (first part standard) 1,230,000

theirselves (second part standard) 211,000

  theirself (neither part standard) 74,800]

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at March 8, 2007 05:03 PM