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‘Themself’ or ‘Themselves’?

Now that we can use the singular they, we have a new question: themself or themselves? In some instances, the singular themself is now acceptable. 

By
Mignon Fogarty,
June 8, 2017

Back in April after the style guide updates that came out of the American Copy Editors Society meeting, I told you that both the AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style now say it’s OK to use they as a gender-neutral singular pronoun, at least in some cases.

Liam on Twitter had a great question that I wasn’t able to answer at the time: He wrote

Liam tweet themself themselves

The Associated Press has been mostly silent on the issue. It’s not covered in the singular they entry, and the primary advice in the Q&A section is to avoid themself by rewriting your sentence. On the other hand, the Chicago Manual of Style editors touched on it in their conference presentation, saying the 17th edition, which comes out in September, is going to say it’s OK to use the word themself if that’s your preference.

Examples of ‘Themself’ and ‘Themselves’

Traditionally, themself has been considered substandard and themselves was the only correct choice, as in They told themselves that everything would be OK. But now that we can use the singular they, sometimes themselves seems wrong. For example, consider this sentence:

Tell the next caller they can redeem the winning code themselves

That sounds wrong since we know it's just one person. This makes more sense:

Tell the next caller they can redeem the winning code themself.

Comparing ‘Yourself’ and ‘Themself’

If the singular they still sounds wrong to you, themself probably bugs you too, but what I like about Chicago’s approach is that they emphasize the similarity between they and you (and between themself and yourself, which has been standard since English was using letters like the thorne and the yogh that we don’t even have in the alphabet anymore).

It’s not unheard of for English to have a pronoun that is both singular and plural: that’s how we use the pronoun you. If I say, “You should have a glitter party,” I could be talking to one person or to a group of people. (And because that’s ambiguous, we have all kinds of regional words for addressing groups of people like y’all, you guys, and you’uns—but that’s a topic for another day.)

Here’s the exact guidance from the page proofs of the 17th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style, section 5.48:

Themself (like yourself) may be used to signal the singular antecedent (though some people will prefer themselves) {they blamed themself [or themselves]}.

I have to say, I am impressed with the entire section on bias-free language in the new edition. It’s practical, talking about maintaining credibility, being respectful, not being distracting, and giving examples of nine different ways you can try to rewrite a sentence. Because even though I kind of dismissed the AP Stylebook in the beginning when I said their advice is just to rewrite the sentence, that’s still usually the best way to avoid being distracting to your readers, and having these nine different examples is going to be helpful when you’re staring at a sentence wondering what to do. I can’t wait to get the final book when it comes out in September.

chicago themself themselves

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