Discussion in 'English Only' started by e2efour, Aug 27, 2012.

  1. e2efour Senior Member

    England (aged 75)
    UK English
    Suppose you are a journalist writing about a patient in hospital who died through being unable to take food.
    Unfortunately, you don't know the sex of the patient. Would you write the following, and if not, why not?

    The patient died because they were unable to feed themself OR The patient died through being unable to feed themself.
    (It would be unacceptable to write the very clumsy "because he or she was unable to feed himself or herself".)

    It should be noted that themself was first used in English in the 14th century. It has recently (since the 1970s) been on the increase, but most books and dictionaries describe it as non-standard.
  2. heypresto

    heypresto Senior Member

    South East England
    English - England
    Although Chambers Dictionary, for instance, claims it to be 'informal' and 'unrecognised in standard English', I suppose we have to accept 'themself'.

    However, in the real world, I would try my hardest to avoid it, either by rewriting the sentence, or simply, doing my job as a journalist and finding out the sex of the patient in question. ;)
  3. Biffo Senior Member

    English - England
    I agree. If a single patient is involved then we can specify the gender. If however a more general statement is required, e.g.

    "In many cases it was found that the patient died because they were unable to feed themself."

    We can substitute "
    In many cases it was found that patients died because they were unable to feed themselves."
  4. rhitagawr

    rhitagawr Senior Member

    British English
    I'd never heard of the awkward "themself" before, although I see it's in Chambers. The combination of the plural "them" and the singular "self" sounds ridiculous to me. I wouldn't use the word whatever its pedigree. I'm one of those sexist pedants who let nouns of common gender default to the masculine. I'd write "The patient died because he was unable to feed himself". If the sex of the patient isn't important, we may as write the grammatically correct "he". If it is important, the journalist should establish it before writing about the patient's death. I don't see how we can have the plural "they" with the singular "patient". To write something like "The patient died because s/he was unable to feed him/herself" is an admission that we've been too lazy to establish the sex of the patient.
    (You sometimes hear "Everyone's got their pen(s)." Strictly speaking, unless we know that they're all women or girls, it should be "Everyone's got his pen" because "everyone" is singular. But the idea of plurality in the word is so strong that the first sentence doesn't sound unnatural.)
  5. e2efour Senior Member

    England (aged 75)
    UK English
    Let us assume that it is not possible to find out the sex of the patient, which would not be an uncommon situation.

    What is it you find "awkward" about themself, I wonder? After all, the use of they to refer to a person or individual has been used for a long time and few people would question it. For example, "you shouldn't give a gun to someone who has shot themselves in the foot." However, I feel unhappy about using the plural themselves when we are clearly talking about one person.
  6. JustKate

    JustKate Moderate Mod

    I agree with Rhitagawr that themself is simply horrible - and rare, too. Since your scenario mentions a journalist, allow me to add that themself is not even mentioned in either The Associated Press Stylebook or The Reuters Style Guide.

    Either use the traditional gender-neutral he or follow the increasingly common practice of using plural pronouns as gender-neutral singlular pronouns: "The patient died because they were unable to feed themselves." I'd use the first one myself, but much as I dislike the second one, it's much better than themself and even I have to concede that plural pronouns being used as gender neutral singular pronouns has become acceptable in many contexts.
    Last edited: Aug 27, 2012
  7. rhitagawr

    rhitagawr Senior Member

    British English
    I'm inclined to agree with JustKate. See my previous posting for my objections to "themself". Personally I'd say "You shouldn't give a gun to someone who's shot himself in the foot". I wouldn't take this to imply that it may be acceptable to give a gun to woman who's shot herself in the foot.
    A lot of this discussion has been about personal styles and preferences. Language changes all the time and some people are more willing than others to accept neologisms.
  8. Biffo Senior Member

    English - England
    It's a quandary. Unfortunately almost any politically correct solution will sound wrong to someone.

    Of course you can always resort to "The patient's inability to self-feed proved fatal."

    Maybe in 50 years...
  9. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    In an earlier thread on this (Themself?), mplsray provides a link to an interesting Language Log post:
    PS. I would "write round" e2efour's original sentence, too:).
    Last edited: Aug 27, 2012
  10. JustKate

    JustKate Moderate Mod

    I don't use either them or themselves as singular pronouns - because I'm often stodgy and generally stubborn, that's why ;) - but if one can be considered a singular gender-neutral pronoun, then the other can be too. If you can accept them as singular, what's the problem with themselves? I just don't get it.

    Edit: And in reference to Loob's post, the question is, has "the future" referred to started already? AP's and Reuters' style guides would suggest that the answer to that is "no."
  11. natkretep

    natkretep Moderato con anima (English Only)

    English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
    I don't think I can bring myself to write themself, and would reformulate the sentence, eg

    Being unable to feed him/herself, the patient died.

    ​(I think a single him/her is fine.)
  12. JulianStuart

    JulianStuart Senior Member

    Sonoma County CA
    English (UK then US)
    Even if it has been used by some over the centuries, "themself" grates, for me, just as much as "they is" :(
  13. dreamlike

    dreamlike Senior Member

    That's something of a surprise to me. How can "he" be a gender-neutral pronoun when the gender is readily apparent, it's male?
    Would "him" and "his" respectively mean "them" and "their" in such contexts:

    If anybody comes, tell him.
    Everyone is entitled to his own opinion.

    Is it more common to convey the idea using "him" and "his" or "them" and "their"?
    I think this "gender-neutral" thing dates back to Old English.
    I've just remembered a construction using it:
    He who.... and it clearly can be both male and female.
  14. JustKate

    JustKate Moderate Mod

    The reason is that he/him have been used as gender-neutral pronouns for centuries...while also being used as masculine pronouns. It's just one of those things. I agree that it is illogical and even at times confusing, but there it is. It wasn't an issue, at least not one that bothered very many people, until the 1970s or thereabouts. Perhaps it should have been, because it can cause misunderstandings.
  15. dreamlike

    dreamlike Senior Member

    Frankly, I didn't expect anyone to offer any logical explanation. So that's simply the way it is. Then it would seem there is no perfect pronoun to be used in such a sentence, for instance:

    Everyone is entitled to his/their own opinion.

    Both "his" and "their" having their obvious drawbacks... curious.
  16. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    Thinking further about e2efour's question....

    As I said before, in e2efour's context I would "write round" the problem (I particularly like Biffo's "self-feed" solution).

    But in a more informal context, I'm not sure what I'd use. If I was chatting to someone about what I'd do - hypothetically - if someone fell over in front of me in the street, would I say:
    If they'd injured themselves, I'd call for an ambulance
    If they'd injured themself, I'd call for an ambulance

    I'd probably say themselves - but I might well say themself....
  17. e2efour Senior Member

    England (aged 75)
    UK English
    Everyone is followed by a singular verb and a plural pronoun in good English and has been for 400 years. If anyone doesn't like "their opinion" above, they can write "his or her own opinion" if they prefer (but try writing this sentence without using they!).
    See for example: "...everybody had their own importance" (Jane Austen), "Let us give everybody their due" (Dickens), "Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes" (Oscar Wilde) etc. etc.
    So why not themself to make it clear that one person is involved? It is certainly on the increase.
  18. heypresto

    heypresto Senior Member

    South East England
    English - England
    Notwithstanding the fact that if someone fell over in front of me, I am very likely to know the sex of the unfortunate person, I agree with Loob. I'd probably say 'themselves'.

    In fact, I would definitely say, 'themselves'.
  19. JustKate

    JustKate Moderate Mod

    Everyone/their is debated elsewhere in this forum, so I'm not going to start the whole thing up again here.

    But as for themself being "on the increase"? Maybe. But it's still rare (allow me to again point out that it's not even mentioned by either the AP or Reuters style guides, and your scenario did suppose that the writer is a journalist), and it's still, to most people, illiterate-sounding and therefore unacceptable.

    It wouldn't be too bad under informal circumstances, such as those mentioned by Loob, but your sentence isn't informal, and the context you describe isn't informal either. Sure, you can use it. But it sounds wrong to most people, at least those who notice such things, and when it comes to grammar, if it sounds wrong to most educated speakers, it pretty much is wrong.
    Last edited: Aug 27, 2012
  20. e2efour Senior Member

    England (aged 75)
    UK English
    May I recommend anyone who is interested in themself two references:, and both dated May 2012.
    Carey also refers also to the article mentioned by Loob above in #9 and quotes from a journalist: Walking through Pilsen, the casual observer might easily think themself back in 1945 (The Times, 7 May 1990).

    There are 24 examples in the British National Corpus (including 5 from newspapers) and 98 in Coca (Contemporary American English), which suggests that it is not uncommon, at least informally.

    Reactions to themself range from the hysterical "Whether it’s making a comeback or not, 'themself' is stupid, wrong, ungraceful, and unnecessary" to more balanced comments, which point out that it is substandard, to those who think it fills a gap in English ("I had forgotten ‘themself’ and it makes perfect sense! We were advised as English students long, long ago that if we didn’t want to specify gender then it was perfectly acceptable to use the plural pronoun with a singular noun, as in 'the child wanted to visit the zoo by themselves'.") (quoted from the above).
    Last edited: Aug 27, 2012
  21. JustKate

    JustKate Moderate Mod

    But e2efour...your suggested sentence isn't informal. Your scenario isn't informal either - a journalist writing about somebody dying isn't likely to use informal writing. So what difference does its commonness (or rarity) under informal circumstances matter? I know plenty of people who under informal circumstances say "We was," and my own quite literate father frequently in conversation said things like "Get them weeds pulled," but that doesn't mean "we was" and "them weeds" is appropriate everywhere.
  22. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    I think "themself" does fill a gap in English, and I'm fairly sure that if we came back to this thread in 100 years people would wonder why we were worrying about it.

    That said, I agree with Kate on this: I don't think it's usable, yet, in formal English:).
  23. ewie

    ewie Senior Member

    Another Country
    English English
    At the risk of going over the top, I'd sooner have my tongue torn out by vultures and my hand chewed off by guinea pigs than ever commit themself to speech or writing.

    That's it.
  24. Wildcat1 Senior Member

    Amer. English
    I agree with Loob, disagree with ewie.

    I think most of us are in agreement that, informally at least, they/them/their are OK with an indefinite singular antecedent like "everyone". The question then arises, what should the corresponding reflexive pronoun be. I think people tend to say "themself" rather than "themselves" (again, with singular antecedent), and, as a native speaker of English, this seems "right" to me (not formally correct, but colloquially "right"). I accept that not everyone will agree with me.

    I would not use "themself" in any kind of formal writing.
  25. JustKate

    JustKate Moderate Mod

    To paraphrase columnist Dave Barry, in 100 years I plan to be dead ;) , so perhaps I won't have to deal with it. I feel...well, not perhaps quite as strongly as Ewie, but jeeeeeeeeze, I'm almost there. If them is OK as a singular pronoun - which it isn't to me, but it is to many, many fine and grammatical people - why's the singular themselves so bad? And how in the world can it be considered less acceptable than - yuck! - themself?

    Either plural pronouns can be considered singular under certain circumstances (just as masculine pronouns can be considered gender neutral under certain circumstances) or they can't. If they can, why accept them but not themselves?
    Last edited: Aug 27, 2012
  26. Hermione Golightly

    Hermione Golightly Senior Member

    British English
    I would avoid 'themself' in formal speech and in writing because it sounds so awful that it impedes effective communication despite me being a huge fan of 'themselves', 'their' and gender neutrality in general. It sounds plain wrong, however irrational that might be and whatever historical precedent there is. If I didn't know the sex of the individual concerned I might have to reconsider my choice of career.

    In the highly unlikely event that nobody knew or was prepared to divulge the sex of the patient, I would certainly compose my article in a way that avoided using 'himself/herself' or 'themself'.

    Last edited: Aug 27, 2012
  27. Wildcat1 Senior Member

    Amer. English
    I think the answer to these questions is that they/them/their have a centuries-old tradition of being used in a singular sense, and more importantly, are currently widely used as singulars. The same is not true of "selves".

    It would be interesting to do the following survey. Ask a random group of native speakers:
    Forget everything you learned in school; ignore what grammar books might say. Which of the following sounds better to you:
    1. Someone just shot themself - call the police!
    2. Someone just shot themselves - call the police!
    I'd put my money on #1.
  28. JustKate

    JustKate Moderate Mod

    I just disagree. Sorry. I think most native speakers would recoil from themself if given a chance (now, anyway - this could easily change, of course). That is, it might slip out of their mouth if they were talking carelessly - many things do, after all - but I don't think most people would chose to use that word if they thought about it for even a couple of seconds. I think themselves would sound much more natural because that at least has been a word in use for a very long time.

    But hey, the only way to see who's right and who's wrong is to wait and see.
    Last edited: Aug 28, 2012
  29. e2efour Senior Member

    England (aged 75)
    UK English
    In English you can be singular or plural. Correspondingly, we have yourself and yourselves.

    They/them are usually plural but can be used as gender-neutral pronounswith a singular subject. So why not themself/themselves? It seems to me a useful distinction.
    I also note that themself has been used in "respectable" prose, e.g. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Emily Dickinson, so there's hope for me yet.

    Just to satisfy you, JustKate, I do avoid using themself in formal writing, you will be glad to hear. I hardly think, however, that it can be compared with "we was" and "get them weeds pulled out". :)

    But I do think it clumsy to write sentences where "he and she" or "him and her" occur twice.

    It is worth saying that legal texts (e.g. insurance conditions) nearly always use he/him throughout. This does not mean that he is a gender-neutral pronoun, but merely reflects the inconvenience of having to write "he and she" etc.
  30. JustKate

    JustKate Moderate Mod

    Oh, E2, you are breaking my heart. ;) Themself sounds at least as bad as "pull them weeds out." Wait, I'm wrong. It sounds worse. I truly loathe it with the white-hot heat of a thousand suns, so I hope I'm right about the future of this little device and you're wrong.

    Besides, if there's no need to differentiate between the singular and plural them, as is apparently the case for many people, why is it necessary and "useful" to differentiate between the singular and plural themselves? If one isn't confusing and is good grammar, what's so bad about the other one? Either people can handle a word that does double duty as both plural and singular, or they can't. No?

    I agree, more or less, on he or she - if it's overused, and twice in one sentence would definitely be overused. I think it's absolutely fine so long as you only have to toss a he or she and a his or her into the mix now and then, though. If you do it right, most people won't even notice.
  31. Miss Julie

    Miss Julie Senior Member

    Chicago metro area
    << Moderator's note: These comments have been moved from this thread, where they were off topic: selfie >>
    Note: There is no such word as "themself." It's either himself or herself.
    Last edited by a moderator: Dec 11, 2013
  32. Stoggler

    Stoggler Senior Member

    Sussex, GBR
    UK English
    A lesson for me to proofread my posts! I'll edit it

    (thanks by the way)
  33. e2efour Senior Member

    England (aged 75)
    UK English
    Not so! See The American Heritage Dictionary:
    1. Informal Himself or herself. Used as a gender-neutral reflexive pronoun: "Relationships are hard, but all the work is worth it, unless the person you're with has totally let themself go" (John Metz).
    Last edited by a moderator: Dec 11, 2013
  34. Miss Julie

    Miss Julie Senior Member

    Chicago metro area
    It is far from being universally accepted, however. It is still considered substandard usage.
  35. Egmont Senior Member

    Massachusetts, U.S.
    English - U.S.
    The question of pronouns that do not imply that a person is male or female is evolving rapidly. I think most people would agree with the first quoted sentence, but many would not agree with the second. I don't particularly like it either, but I no longer wear a doublet, I replaced my horse-drawn carriage with one of those newfangled automobiles a few years ago, I recently figured out that a radio does not have little people inside it, and I'll probably have to accept "themself" soon as well.
  36. e2efour Senior Member

    England (aged 75)
    UK English
    It may be worth noting that the OED (Online version) seems to have accepted themself in the meaning himself or herself in its latest revision in line with the third edition (September 1913).
    In the 2nd printed edition themself did not even appear as an entry. In the latest online version it now has a whole entry to itself, while the original entry themselves still remains. Here are a couple of quotes that have been added:

    In apposition to a singular noun or pronoun of undetermined gender: himself or herself.

    1997 Independent on Sunday 21 Dec. i. 6/4 Every six to eight weeks a man or a woman—usually a man—kills their partner or their children and them[typo for then?] themself.
    2005 B. Flaws & P. Sionneau Treatm. Mod. Western Med. Diseases Chinese Medicine Intro. 5/1 Mostly reported by the patient themself or their close family members.

    The OED only mentions as substandard in the US the use of themself to refer to plural objects. It does not use the word informal, as far as I can tell. But it is a little confusing to have to entries for both themself and themselves.
    So we don't have to wait 100 years for this word to become acceptable. :)

    You may also be confronted by a form which asks you to send a photo of yourself. The common wording (and this is also used in Canadian legislation) is something like An applicant must submit a photo of themself. The OED would also, it seems, allow themselves.

    But I know which one I would choose!
    Last edited: Dec 12, 2013
  37. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    Oh, I'm with you, e2! I mentioned 100 years only to indicate that things are evolving, and that resistance to "themself" would surely be long-gone in 100 years.

    "Themself" seems a useful word to me, and a good parallel with singular "yourself" vs plural "yourselves":).
  38. nonchalant slacker Senior Member

    If a patient is not taking their medication, they should tell me about it before I have to ask them what their problem is

    In my opinion I wouldn`t use Themself, but only because there are ways to avoid it, not because I think it`s wrong.

    "The patient died because they were unable to feed themselves."
    "The patient died because he was unable to feed himself"
  39. ain'ttranslationfun? Senior Member

    US English

    Loob called my attention to this thread (now called a "discussion") today, a year after the last post (now "comment").

    In the OP (now called an "OP"), e2four wrote:
    "...a patient in a hospital who died through being unable to take food..." I find it hard to believe this could happen; a patient in a hospital who was unable to take food orally would be fed intravenously, no?

    heypresto < ---- > wrote in#18:
    "Notwithstanding the fact that if someone fell over in front of me, I am (tense agreement, hp :D?) very likely to know the sex of the unfortunate person..." As Loob specified in the post to which hp was referring,she was speaking hypothetically, so she couldn't know.

    < ---- > Chat removed. Cagey, moderator.
    Last edited by a moderator: Nov 18, 2015
  40. e2efour Senior Member

    England (aged 75)
    UK English
    The reference to the patient "being unable to take food" meant that food or liquid was deliberately withheld because the patient was dying (called the "Liverpool care pathway" in UK hospitals). It could have been better rephrased as "not being allowed access to food or drink".

    If you don't know the gender of a person, you more or less have to use they/them/themselves or the informal themself, which is certainly not substandard English when applied to one person.
    Last edited: Nov 18, 2015
  41. heypresto

    heypresto Senior Member

    South East England
    English - England
    You've got me bang to rights there. And I thought I had got away with it for the past three years or so. :D

    It's especially humiliating for me, as when I set a pizzle puzzle I go to great lengths to ensure the parts of speech of definition and answer agree.

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