Singular (or epicene) they has been a hot topic among copy editors over the last five or six years, and we’re seeing a growing acceptance of it. We’ve explored the subject here on Copyediting a number of times already (like here, here, here, and here), so there’s really no point in my rehashing how useful it can be for eschewing sexism, respecting sexual identities, and avoiding clunky sentences. So I won’t.
But pronouns are not singular things; they are families. For example, if I were to ask for a singular feminine pronoun, your first thought might be she. You’d be right, too, but that’s not the only one. Along with she, like baby ducks waddling single-file behind their mother, are her, hers, and herself. It’s like this for all pronouns.
So when we talk about something like singular they, we need to talk about the whole family that comes along with it.
Once we accept singular they, understanding and incorporating singular them, their, and theirs is elementary. But when we get to the reflexive pronoun, things get awkward.
In the past, when standard English said that they was exclusively a plural pronoun, it only made sense that its reflexive form would be themselves. In the olden days (you know, thirty years ago), an editor who was faced with a sentence like “Only an egotist would throw a party for themselves.” would make the noun and reflexive pronoun agree in number:
- Singular: Only an egotist would throw a party for himself (or herself).
- Plural: Only egotists would throw parties for themselves.
But as the singular they family gains acceptance, it opens more options — or creates problems, depending on your viewpoint. Consider this well-known, gender-specific sentence: No man is an island unto himself. If we want to take the gender out of it — maybe we’re waxing poetic about the 2016 U.S. presidential candidates — what do we do?
We could recast the sentence to avoid the problem, and in the process wring out any poetry and obliterate the allusion. If we avoid singular they, we might end up with something as ugly as “No one is an island unto himself or herself.” If we bring in the singular they family, how do we fit the reflexive in there?
- No one is an island unto themselves.
- No one is an island unto themself.
I’m willing to bet that neither of those sits quite right in your mind. In the first possibility, the matching of singular one with the doubly plural them + selves probably sets off your grammatical spidey sense. In the second, themself doesn’t feel right either, if only because we’ve spent so long using only themselves. Is themself even a word?
According to Catherine Soanes at the Oxford Dictionaries Blog, not only is themself a word, but it predates themselves by about 150 years and was even used to refer to plural antecedents. During the sixteenth century, themselves overtook themself, likely — as is so often the case — through grammarians’ application of excessive amounts of logic and Latin to English usage. By the seventeenth century, themself was nonstandard (shunned might be more accurate).
So yes, themself is a word, but a deprecated one. The question we editors must ask, then, is whether we should revive it as a gender-neutral singular reflexive pronoun.
I see only one answer: If we are going to embrace the singular they, them, and their, we ought to revive the singular, reflexive themself along with them. Like its siblings, themself nicely fills a semantic gap in our language without drawing too much attention to itself. It might look and sound strange (especially if you’re listening for it), and it will certainly goad the grumbling grammar trolls out from under their bridges, but can’t that be said for all language change? Time will smooth that strangeness over. Eventually.
But we are still in the early stages of this change. Singular they grew primarily from informal, conversational speech, and only now is spilling over into acceptable, standard English, and it’s far from universally accepted. If themself eventually makes a comeback, we can expect it to lag behind its siblings along the same path.
Ultimately, its acceptance and growth is in our hands as editors and English speakers. Stan Carey has written about singular they and themself a few times, and he sums up the situation nicely: “Though our reach is modest, we all play a part in shaping the conventions of English usage. If we keep using themself, it may eventually become standard again. In the meantime, aside from contexts where house style restricts usage, each of us can choose for ourself.”
Which brings up another reflexive pronoun we ought to talk about . . .