I am a civil servant and in the course of my work I was writing a document for publication (a Fire & Rescue Service circular). In that draft I used the word ‘themself’ because it was a gender neutral third person singular. I got back an e-mail from a colleague informing me that I couldn’t use ‘themself’ because it wasn’t a word.

Here’s an edited highlight of the e-mail (names removed to protect the guilty and innocent alike).

>>> Someone 14:47 04 Jul 06 >>>

There is no such word as “themself”

>>> Themself 04/07/06 15:43:10 >>>

I disagree on the existence of ‘themself’ I use it all the time. Perhaps it is a Scottish word.

>>> Someone 16:07 04 Jul 06 >>>

“Themself” is not in the Oxford English Dictionary. The Chambers Dictionary says it is best avoided. And Fowler’s Modern English Usage says it is incorrect.

>>> Themself 16:15 04 Jul 06 >>>

Interesting as it is I’m not much bothered about received opinion on English usage. Provided people understand clearly what is meant, then it is correct usage. English is a living language.

However, here is a quote from Merriam Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage: “According to the OED, themself was the normal form of the third person plural reflexive pronoun until about 1540, when it was superseded by themselfs and, ultimately, themselves.

The OED says that themself “disappeared” by about 1570, but we have evidence of its use persisting in familiar use (by Emily Dickinsona dn F. Scott Fitzgerald, among others) into the 20th century. Since the 1970s or so it has been revived as a gender-neutral singular reflexive pronoun, taking the place of himself or herself. This use of themself is similar to the use of their, their, and them in reference to singular terms and indefinite pronouns. ‘Walking through Pilsen, the casual observer might easily think themself back in 1945’ – The Times (London), 7 May 1990 ‘With the unselfconscious absorption of someone working something out for themself’ – J. Hoberman, Village Voice, 15 Oct. 1991 Such use of they, their, and them is old and well established. Similar use of themself, however, is not very well established but appears to be on the increase.”


I never got another e-mail on the subject, although no doubt I have been marked down as a trouble maker…

Also, there is now yet more evidence of the use of themself in the form of a Fire & Rescue Service Circular (44-2006) with the word “themself” in it.

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