Word Nerd Diary: “Themself”

As I pursue my M.A. Fashion Journalism, I often find myself mentally editing the works of my classmates and (usually) successfully stamp down the urge to publish these remarks within the class because I’m not the teacher and it is not my place. I understand this.

Today, in writing an essay for Current Developments & Debates in Journalism, I stumbled upon a grammatical anomaly. “Themself.” Is it a word? Is it correct? It makes logical sense as a gender-neutral singular reflexive pronoun.

themself5So I posed the question to the experts: former and current teachers and/or professors. The wife of a former history teacher immediately posted on my Facebook question that it should be “himself.” This is not gender-neutral. A former English teacher provided the same answer.

A former college professor said there is no such word, and to make the sentence plural to use themselves. Saved me the headache and my deadline, but didn’t answer the question at hand.

So I posed the question to current Language Assistant Professors in 3 of my 4 courses this semester, then proceeded to research the issue.

The Oxford English Dictionary blog has an entire post devoted to “themself,” and the rather heated debates it brings up. The author of the post, Catherine Soanes, breaks down the history and revival of the term, and offers this advice:

“the wheel has not yet come full circle and themself remains a standard English outcast. . . for now. You can be sure that Oxford’s lexicographers are keeping their eye on the situation: given the strong evidence for themself in all types of writing, it may well merit reconsideration within the next 20 years or so.”

The Language Assistant Professor in the Debates course, Alice Clay, got back to me this evening, listing my options to “be gutsy…and give themself a try,” or “be bold…and go with themselves,” or “to please most grammarians, go with himself or herself,” and finally to save myself the headache, make the sentence plural and go with themselves. Oh, and I may have inspired her next tutorial on the subject.

The Language Assistant Professor in Researching, Writing, and Reporting Features course, Sheila Hancock, applauded my decision to make it plural with the comment “I would have done the same because themself has never been considered a “correct” form of the reflexive pronoun.  I am inspired by your question to do more research myself.”

The Language Assistant Professor in Lead & Short News Bootcamp, Thomas Donahoe, provided an interesting bit of information: “Oxford says that “themself” is acceptable…but British grammar isn’t entirely the same as American grammar (so you could argue that it depends on whether one is writing for a British or American publication).”

Thomas also sent me to this GrammarGirl post which discusses the many facets of the issue without actually referencing “themself” as a potential solution.

Final Thoughts: After asking 5 professionals, researching 4 style guides, and researching in 3 dictionaries/databases, I have found:

1) “Themself” is a word, dating back to the 14th Century.

And

2) It is not an accepted reflexive pronoun in American English, but it is acceptable British English.

Which makes it either an archaic pronoun or a British dialect, and either way, the Steampunker in me is happy to use it as such colloquially, but I will continue avoiding it in formal writings until either American  lexicographers deem it valid or I start writing and publishing within British demographics.

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