Themself or Themselves?
As discussed in a previous article in Legistics, the plural pronoun "they" can be used to represent a singular antecedent that is gender-neutral and indefinite, for example, "someone", "no one", "anyone" or "a person". As the article states, the other grammatical forms of the "singular they" are "them", "their" and "themselves", and these are used in a sentence to relate to a "singular they" subject, along with a plural verb. The question addressed in this article is whether "themself" can be used in some cases instead of "themselves" with reference to a singular "they" or a singular indefinite antecedent.
1. Use themselves as the reflexive/intensive pronoun to refer to an indefinite gender-neutral noun or pronoun that is the subject of the sentence and avoid themself.
2. If a singular indefinite gender-neutral noun is the subject of a sentence, use the "singular they" elsewhere in the sentence, especially as the subject of any subordinate clause, to refer to it rather than repeat the noun; this will improve readability. In the following provision, for example, the use of "they" as the subject of the subordinate clause, along with a plural verb, instead of "the person" and a singular verb, makes themselves sound more natural.
A claim for refugee protection shall be rejected, and a person is not a Convention refugee if they have voluntarily reavailed themselves of the protection of their country of nationality.
3. If themselves sounds awkward, redraft the sentence without using the reflexive/intensive pronoun.
According to the rules of grammar, reflexive/intensive pronouns are formed by adding the singular self or the plural selves to the possessive form of the first- and second-person personal pronouns (myself, yourself, ourselves, yourselves), to the objective form of third-person personal pronouns (herself, himself, itself, themselves), and to the impersonal pronoun "one" (oneself). Self is chosen if the pronoun to which it is being added is singular, while selves is chosen if the pronoun is plural.
Dictionaries and usage manuals
The current Oxford English Dictionary Online does not have an entry for themself; however, under the entry for themselves it states that "themself" was the normal form of the third person plural reflexive pronoun until about 1540 and that this form had completely disappeared by about 1570, when it was superseded by themselfs and then themselves, which became the standard form. Although some current dictionaries, for example, The New Oxford Dictionary of English, state that themself has re-emerged in recent years when used to refer to a singular gender-neutral noun or pronoun ("themselves" remains the normal third person plural reflexive form), they label it as "rare" or "disputed" or "not widely accepted in standard English". Other dictionaries such as Webster's Third New International Dictionary do not mention it at all. In short, although there is some acknowledgement that this form is occasionally used today, informally, and that 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.
- The Canadian Oxford Dictionary
- The Canadian Writer's Handbook
- The New Fowler's Modern English Usage
- The New Oxford Dictionary of English
- The Oxford English Dictionary, on-line edition
- The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary
- Webster's Third New International Dictionary
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