What follows was written to satisfy a class assignment in a course for copy editors. We were asked to identify and research a “current language controversy”, citing reputable advocates of various viewpoints, and then to write our own usage guidelines for the item in question. I’m posting my submission here in hopes it might be of interest to others pondering the familiar question of the third-person singular ‘they’, and more specifically to present the case for ‘themself’ over ‘themselves’ as the more defensible of two alternatives (both in long, continuous use) for the third-person singular neuter reflexive pronoun.
The following is a discussion of the controversy over the use of the third-person singular neuter ‘they’ in writing, along with associated forms such as ‘them’, ‘their’, and in particular, the reflexive pronoun ‘themself’. Historical justification will be argued for the preferability of ‘themself’ over ‘themselves’ in this context. The notions of those who have either condemned all of these forms (when the referent is singular) or championed them will also be discussed.
In a context where these pronouns are grammatically singular, there exist no universally accepted usages for any of them. However, all but one of them are universally accepted when they stand in for a plural noun or noun phrase. The exception is ‘themself’, which is commonly, though not universally, regarded as ungrammatical, no matter the context. When I come to examples and sides to the controversy I will restrict myself to the interesting case of the structurally singular reflexive pronoun ‘themself’ (distinct from the structurally plural but semantically singular alternative ‘themselves’) which, despite written attestations dating back to at least 1460 [sic], is today regarded by most style arbiters as a non-word, and in most of the dictionaries that acknowledge it, as an extinct one.
2. Historical background
Linguists concern themselves with description, while prescriptive norms are spurned and are universally regarded as falling outside the proper purview of the discipline. A judgement about the grammaticality of a given usage is thus determined by what is actually done in practice within a particular speech community. Copy editors serve a quite different purpose and concern themselves, first and foremost – as they must – with the “shoulds” of usage. However, since linguists are sentient beings that have, by definition, a passion for language, they all seem have an opinion on this well-known usage debate. The opinion they have is strikingly consistent. I know of no credentialed linguist who considers the male pronoun he/him/his preferable, as a third-person singular neuter pronoun, to the still-stigmatised ‘they’. The reason for this uniformity of opinion is that linguists have all studied the history of the language, and are usually aware that ‘they’ is not only firmly established, but, rather confoundingly, is in fact considerably older than the alternative usage it is meant, in the modern context, to amend. (Confused yet?)
By the measure of usage, the question of the grammaticality of the third-person singular ‘they’ is not only settled, but has been so for several centuries – since the 1300s in fact, well before the advent of modern English (which begins about the time of Shakespeare). In other words, the third-person singular ‘they’ has never NOT had currency in our language. ‘They’ has been in continuous use as a singular since about a hundred years after the word itself entered Middle English (as a plural) by way of Viking Old Norse speakers. It was not until 1745 that this pronoun was first challenged as “ungrammatical” by one Ann Fisher, in her “A New Grammar with Exercises of Bad English”. Not to be melodramatic, but to the extent the publication of any book affecting mere grammar could be regarded as tragic, the appearance of “A New Grammar with Exercises of Bad English” was one such case. This author managed almost single-handedly to break the pronoun system of English.
There is irony in the fact that the first proponent of he/him/his in place of they/them/their was a woman, not a man. Having persuaded herself the common usage represented a number disagreement, Fisher proposed that ‘he’ was thus preferable in lieu of singular ‘they’, arguing that the male pronoun could reasonably be construed to represent the gender it (even then) semantically excluded. Making matters worse, Fisher further urged that, due to their cumbersomeness, the phrases “he or she” and “his or her” should be passed over in favour of the male pronoun alone. Despite the gender of its first advocate, it would be very difficult to counter the universal perspective of feminism that Fisher’s non-solution to a non-problem, though absurd on the face of it, evinces sexism in the civilisation as a whole against Fisher’s own gender.
The singular ‘you’ is more or less parallel to ‘they’, having similarly been strictly plural a first (where ‘thou’ was singular). Ye/you/your/yourself transitioned to include the formal singular as well as the plural (perhaps in emulation of French) and eventually supplanted thee/thou/thy/thyself altogether. Having started its existence as a plural, it might have been expected to inspire distaste like the singular they. But it apparently did not upset Ann Fisher in the same way. For that much at least, I suppose we can all be thankful – I, thou, and the rest of you. According to the Oxford English Dictionary,
in standard English themself was the normal form to c1540, but disappeared c1570. Themselfs, themselves appears c1500, and became the standard form c1540.
In this passage I believe we can spot the cause of the particular unease felt by our antagonist Ann Fisher (and, to be fair, presumably by others of her day) as well as the reason singular ‘you’ was left unmolested. It’s crucial to understand exactly what the OED entry quoted above is saying. Originally, ‘themself’ was the form not only of the semantic singular, but of the semantic plural as well. (In similar fashion, ‘ourself’ was replaced by ‘ourselves’, by the way.) I believe we can feel reasonably certain that, had the shift to ‘themselves’ not come about (for the plural alone, initially) or, had the use of the same form to express the semantic singular not become commonplace among many speakers, Ms. Fisher would never have taken up the cause of drumming it out of the language on the basis of an apparent number disagreement. Had she available to her, as we have today, the advantage of the extensive research compiled in the OED, she might well have simply chosen to insist on ‘themself’ instead.
3. Contemporary attestations of ‘themself’ from my own web searches:
> Where could a person who finds themself in this situation start a new career and be a top wage earner within a short five to ten-year period?
> “Alongside the suggestion of running another round of applications, the idea has been floated that whoever finds themself at the top of our list of GLA candidates should also be invited to become the mayoral candidate….”
> A clear example, repeated in every apartment I’ve ever lived in, involves toilet paper. Nobody wants to buy the next pack of Charmin because everyone swears that someone is using way more than they are themself.
> While homosexuality is becoming more tolerated as an identity in twenty-first Century America, it can still be traumatic for any young person to accept this for themself.
> Each Peer Minister considers themself a resource to assist and counsel other students when needed.
> It sets people back, prevents them from achieving their goals in life, and can make a person regard themself as a failure.
> And they seem to have gotten an unbelievable amount of press off of it, because now every single Thai tourist feels irresistably compelled to photograph themself in front of the bank.
> A judge SHOULD recuse themself if there can be even an appearance of a conflict or possible bias.
4. Accepted usages
There are no generally accepted usages of ‘themself’. Even those pundits who are comfortable with the singular ‘they’ tend to counsel against using ‘themself’, no matter the context. A typical example is the advice at oxforddictionaries.com (https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/usage/themselves-or-themself):
In recent years, people have started to use themself to correspond to this singular use of they and them: it’s seen as the logical singular form of themselves. For example:
This is the first step in helping someone to help themself.
This form is not yet widely accepted, though, so you should avoid using it in formal written contexts. If you were writing the sentence above, you should say:
This is the first step in helping someone to help themselves.
5. Sides of the debate
In 2015, Washington Post Copy Editor Bill Walsh famously gave the paper’s blessing, for the first time, to third-person singular they/them/their.
In 2017 the Associated Press has followed suit. (http://www.bendbulletin.com/exports/newsletters/main/5187872-153/singular-they-added-to-grammar-guide?referrer=bullet5)
These two are probably the two most influential usage arbiters in the ‘for’ camp. However, thus far neither of them have expressly granted approval to the structurally singular reflexive form ‘themself’. In 2016, in the Posts’s “Grammar Geekery with Bill Walsh” online chat, the Editor answers a question about precisely this. Here Bill Walsh comes closest to endorsing ‘themself’, expressing skepticism toward the reasonableness of ‘themselves’ as a singular, and saying of ‘themself’, “Why not?”:
Q: “Every kid… felt sorry for themselves….”
“Every kid from a small family has probably felt sorry for themselves at one time or another….” —From the opening line of a 1 Jan 2016 Wonkblog piece by Ana Swanson. Accepting “they” in place of “she” or “he” or “she or he” carries us headlong into all the ensuing cases. I’m not a mindless prescriptivist, but I recoil at these dissonant pronouns. Trans-, cross-, bi-, tri-, poly-, or multi-, gender is bending grammar into shapes that knot my knickers. I’d love to read the treatment of this subject in the updated style manual. Why not “every kid felt sorry for themself”? What rules are we following?
A: Bill Walsh
That’s an interesting consequence of the singular they that we haven’t gotten around to addressing, in part because we save the device for use as a last resort and presumably would avoid it if things got this weird.
The consensus seems to be that they acts identically in all its forms whether it’s being used as plural or as singular, hence themselves. I don’t think I buy that. If themself, without the very obviously plural ending, can be called into use, why not?
In the against camp the most prestigious voice is that of the Post’s chief competitor, The New York Times. In 2010, Philip B. Corbett, Associate Masthead Editor for Standards, who oversees the Times’ style manual (or at least did at the time) in his “Notes from the newsroom on grammar, usage and style” column rejects all forms of singular ‘they’, recommending instead that “the problem” be dodged by way of some alternative locution:
Can a Person Be a ‘They’?
No. Miss Thistlebottom was right about this one. In careful writing, we continue to use “they” as a plural pronoun that should have a plural antecedent.
Often writers resort to “they” after a singular noun to avoid using a gender-specific pronoun in a general case. Here’s an example I cited in After Deadline last month:
When a person enters search terms for a product or service, the search engine may display links where they can get a discount coupon from a retailer or coupon aggregator.
In many cases, the problem can easily be avoided by starting with a plural noun: “When customers enter search terms …”
The perspective of the Times does not appear to have changed since.
Among language professionals representing an institution, Bill Walsh’s perspective remains one of the most liberal. While language professionals range in their position on ‘themself’ from perhaps not completely convinced to horrified, linguistic scholars are much more open to it. The best examples of this perspective can generally be found in often quite spirited online discussions, such as the exchanges at the following links (which I recommend you read):
6. Usage guidelines
Recognising my position is a somewhat heretical one, in the role of a copy editor I would not, at the present time, expect to be in a position to use the guidelines I lay out here. Having said that, it does represent what I consider the best, least artificial, and least problematic solution to the pronoun conundrum that has afflicted the English language since the 1745 publication of Ann Fisher’s “A New Grammar with Exercises of Bad English”.
With respect to the third-person singular pronoun, when the gender of the party is either non-specific or unknown (or in rare cases actually indeterminate) use ‘they’, ‘them’, or ‘their’ by default, according to the appropriate grammatical case. When the reflexive pronoun is called for, use ‘themself’, reserving ‘themselves’ to the plural sense. In general, the cumbersome “he or she” / “him or her” / “his or her” / “him- or herself” is to be avoided. Use of either the male or female pronoun alone by way of reference generically to both sexes is regarded as grammatical error (regardless of what motivates it) and it will be amended accordingly. The same applies to the practice of alternating between male and female pronouns. ‘One’ in all its forms (one / one’s / oneself) is regarded as a lexical artifice and should be avoided whenever possible by replacing it, according to the situation, with a more idiomatic alternative (generally either ‘you’ or ‘they’).
In the following examples, the sentences preceded by an asterisk are to be avoided, in preference of the sentences with a checkmark.
* I can’t be sure it was a woman, but he did have a taste for chick flicks.
√ I can’t be sure it was a woman, but they did have a taste for chick flicks.
* When I figure out who ate my strawberries I’m going to kill him.
√ When I figure out who ate my strawberries I’m going to kill them.
* The person who takes his time will typically outperform the competition.
√ The person who takes their time will typically outperform the competition.
* This person seems to be shooting themselves in the foot.
√ This person seems to be shooting themself in the foot.