The Lingua Franca bloggers Allen Metcalf and Anne Curzan have written about the American Dialect Society’s laudable selection of singular they as Word of the Year. But they, like most commenting on the topic, have not addressed a pressing and, to a large extent unresolved, issue: the word’s corresponding “emphatic and reflexive pronoun” (in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary).
Dennis Baron and others have shown that they has been used to refer to singular nouns for centuries; the emphatic-reflexive dilemma was commented on as long ago as 1926, by H.W. Fowler in his Modern English Usage. He starts with a quote from an (unnamed) published source — “Everyone without further delay gave themselves up to rejoicing” — and notes that everyone, each, anyone, no one, and like words “are all singular; that is undisputed.” The discussion that follows is, as usual with Fowler, worth quoting at length.
In a perfect language there would exist pronouns and possessives that were of as doubtless gender as they & yet were, like them, singular; i.e., it would have words meaning him-or-her, himself-or-herself, his or her. But … we lack the French power in saying in one word his-or-her. There are three makeshifts: A, as anyone can see for himself or herself ; B, as anyone can for themselves; and C, as anyone can see for himself.
Here Fowler’s 1926 worldview comes into play:
No one who can help it chooses A; it is correct, & is sometimes necessary, but it is so clumsy as to be ridiculous except when explicitness is urgent, & it usually sounds like a bit of pedantic humor. B is the popular solution [interesting!]; it sets the literary man’s teeth on edge, & he exerts himself to give us the same meaning in some entirely different way if he is not prepared, as he usually is, to risk C. … C is here recommended. It involves the convention that where a matter of sex is not conspicuous or important he & his shall be allowed to represent a person instead of a man.
Whether that, with A in the background for his special exactitude, & paraphrase always possible in dubious cases, is an arrogant demand on the part of male England, everyone must decide for himself (or for himself or herself, or for themselves).
Needless to say, in this day in age (as a student recently wrote in a paper), C is no longer tenable. The striking thing to me is that Fowler doesn’t event mention what seems to me to be the preferable solution. I refer to themself.
I imagine that he didn’t mention themself because it is sort of the verbal equivalent of an imaginary number, like the square root of negative two. The plural them- and the singular -self can’t logically go together, or so it would seem. But the OED has a definition for themself (“In anaphoric reference to a singular pronoun or noun of undetermined gender or where the meaning implies more than one: himself or herself) and has plentiful citations from sources in a variety of registers and eras, most recently:
1881 Memorandum 30 Apr. in Rep. Cases Supreme Court Nebraska (1912) From the signing of this agreement said parties will live separate and apart from each other, and each for themself promises and agrees not to interfere or meddle with the personal actions of the other.1905 Outlook 24 June Every one at breakfast, she added, in an awed voice, ‘had a finger-bowl to themself’.1946 G. Kanin Born Yesterday If I ever seen somebody outsmart themself, it’s you.1967 P. Nichols A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, I don’t know whether anyone sees themself as an old-age pensioner.2007 Glamour Apr. Over-thinking is a person’s way of defending themself emotionally but it can lead to unnecessary paranoia.
(WordPress, the blogging platform used by Lingua Franca, puts a squiggly red line under each themself.)
To get a sense of actual usage, I used Fowler’s examples in Google Ngrams Viewer search, and threw in “anyone can see for themself.” Note the simultaneous rise in consciousness and decline of “anyone can see for himself.”
Fowler’s “clumsy” example A, “anyone can see for himself or herself,” is too long for Ngram. I searched the Google Books database (which the Ngram Viewer uses) and found a total of five hits, including one in reference to Fowler’s discussion. All dated from 1982 or later except for this appealing quote from First Steps in Southern Forest Study, by Daisy Priscilla Smith Edgerton (1930): “In this verdant Southland of ours, in the spring, anyone can see for himself or herself the young shoots even of the evergreen pine freshening up the tree.”
As indicated in the graphic, there are no uses of “anyone can see for themself” in Google Books. However, the more demotic Google search turns up 1,390, including, “Anyone can see for themself, since you obviously failed to back your LYING ASSertion up with any evidence, libtard.” The level of sophistication of that quote makes me despair a bit in my crusade for themself. So does the fact that singular themselves is currently more popular. (“Anyone can see for themselves”: more than 99,000 Google results.)
Writing for the OxfordWords blog in 2013, Catherine Soanes pointed out that themself was actually the standard reflexive pronoun for they from the 14th century till about 1540, when themselves took over. Flashing forward to the present day, she says that since singular they has become “largely acceptable” (this has been more true in Britain than in he U.S.), it might be argued that, logically, it should also be OK to use themself, it being viewed as the corresponding singular form of themselves. However, this isn’t yet the case, so beware of themself for now!”
Her “beware” and her exclamation point notwithstanding, I believe themself will prevail, over time. ”Anyone can see for themselves” definitely sets my teeth on edge. It really makes no sense, unless you are Sybil. It reminds me of the old joke with the punchline, “What you mean ‘we,’ Kemo Sabe?”
What do you say? Care to join me in my crusade to make themself the Word of the Year 2016?Return to Top