Themself Is a Perfectly Cromulent Word
Watching language change in action.
By Sarah Grey • April 3, 2017
Each of the hundreds of copyeditors who gathered in sunny St. Petersburg, Florida, last week for the annual ACES: The Society for Editing conference was girding themself for some changes to the rules.
It’s an ACES tradition for The Associated Press to hold its annual press conference announcing what’s changed in each year’s new edition of the AP Stylebook. Many ACES editors have been pressing AP—whose guide is regarded by most U.S. newsrooms as the style “bible”—to allow use of they as a singular personal pronoun for people of nonbinary gender and those who prefer a gender-neutral pronoun. It’s a limited and conditional acceptance and AP still advises writing around it if possible, but its inclusion in the 2017 AP Stylebook is no doubt a step forward. The announcement brought cheers from the language professionals in the room. After the American Dialect Society declared singular they its 2015 Word of the Year, the feeling in the room could be summed up as “It’s about time.”
The Chicago Manual will allow themself to be used as a reflexive singular pronoun.
This year, though, AP was outdone by The Chicago Manual of Style, which announced the publication of its 17th edition at ACES. CMOS, as it’s affectionately called, has been a touchstone for book publishing and academic writing since 1906. While CMOS still cautions that “the use of singular they in place of a generic he or she is not recommended for formal prose,” it is allowing the nonbinary-gender sense as a personal pronoun.
This is a big deal for grammarians and the LGBTQ community alike. Themself has been considered nonstandard for hundreds of years; try to write about it and you’re likely to find Word or your phone autocorrecting it to themselves. Yet there’s no question that it’s needed and that it provides greater clarity as well as respect.
We are of course used to themselves for plural referents:
The dancers pour glitter on themselves.
Then there’s the generic gender-neutral referent:
Each dancer pours glitter on themselves.
This is considered standard, but it’s a bit odd, isn’t it? After all, barring past lives and alter egos, each dancer probably only has one self. As a result, although English teachers and style manuals frown on it, it’s quite common for English speakers to use the singular form here:
Each dancer pours glitter on themself.
Recorded instances of this usage, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, date back to the 1450s.
Recorded instances of this usage, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, date back to the 1450s, and the OED records a staggering 174 different spelling variants (from þeʒʒm sellfenn to thame-selvin to thayme selff). Here’s one from 1489, from William Caxton’s Foure Sonnes of Aymon:
Eche of theym sholde . . . make theymselfe redy.
Though themselves came into favor in the late 1500s as English slowly began to standardize, there’s an unbroken string of recorded instances up through the twentieth century, such as this one from the June 1905 issue of Outlook magazine:
Every one at breakfast, she added, in an awed voice, ‘had a finger-bowl to themself’.
Today, the American Heritage Dictionary records two senses of themself, the generic singular and a substitute for the plural:
- 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).
- Nonstandard Themselves: “I was telling Bubber how he and my uncles owns the whole place themself” (Carson McCullers).
A usage of the gender-nonbinary personal pronoun, on the other hand, would be:
Chris pours glitter on themself. They have been a dancer all their life.
That’s not included in AHD’s current definition, but executive editor Steve Kleinedler says that sense of themself is currently under review. American Heritage Dictionary added the gender-nonbinary sense of singular they in 2016. Dictionary entries for oblique cases of pronouns usually refer to the main entry for the pronoun (themselves and themself refer to the entry for they; myself and me refer to I), but because number agreement isn’t straightforward in this case, Kleinedler says that clarification will likely be added in upcoming updates.
Editors, who are on the front lines of language change, tend to respond more quickly to the needs of their readers and writers.
Some argue that themselves should work as a singular personal pronoun, despite the number agreement; after all, they are is perfectly common with singular referents and poses no more problem than you are does. However, the s ending of themselves makes it an especially conspicuous plural: It stands out, and that’s confusing (as evidenced by the many speakers who avoid it and use themself for singular referents).
Look up themself in a recent usage manual such as Garner’s Modern English Usage (fourth edition), Fowler’s Modern English Usage (third edition), or the Canadian Department of Justice’s Legistics style guide, and you’re likely to see something along the lines of “This isn’t standard yet—but ask us again in ten or twenty years.”
Such hedging is common in the world of “official” usage guides; everyone waits for someone else to make the call, until editors begin shrugging their shoulders and allowing it into print. There’s a bit of a catch-22 here: While editors rely on dictionaries and usage guides to determine what they should publish, dictionaries and usage guides change based on how language is used in edited, published prose. Editors, who are on the front lines of language change, tend to respond more quickly to the needs of their readers and writers.
“Now that it’s there, more people will use it . . . and that’s what lexicographers track.”—Steve Kleinedler, American Heritage Dictionary
A major style manual like the Chicago Manual making the call to allow themself, then, carries enormous weight. Not only is it a mark of acceptance into formal English, but, as Kleinedler points out, “Now that it’s there, more people will use it, which will give us more and more published evidence of use, and that’s what lexicographers track.”
The science-fiction / fantasy / speculative-fiction world is at the forefront of a systematic effort to put gender-neutral language, alternative pronouns (not only they/their but se/ser, xe/xir, and other neologisms) into print. C.B. Lee (@author_cblee on Twitter), a California-based writer of young-adult speculative fiction, uses the singular they, themself, and other alternative pronouns in her work and says that her publisher and editorial team at Duet, the young-adult imprint of the independent Interlude Press, have been nothing but supportive. “They’ve really only queried me when there was a question about whether the meaning was singular or plural,” Lee says. “We ended up changing an instance of themself to they in my book Not Your Sidekick, but only because it really was plural.” The sequel, Not Your Villain (due out in October 2017), uses themself several times. The queer SFF comic anthology Beyond (Beyond Press, 2015) set out to “reflect and celebrate the many facets of gender and sexuality,” with language to match, and additional anthologies now in the works will add even more recorded instances for the lexicographers to weigh.
Because SFF and speculative fiction spend so much time envisioning other worlds, alien societies, and far-future possibilities, gender-neutral language is absolutely crucial for them: Binary gender, after all, is a social construction that isn’t even universal among human beings, let alone other Earth species, so why assume it would exist throughout the galaxy? Surely there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in the English language.
Advances in language help us imagine other ways of being.
Advances in language help us imagine other ways of being. But we don’t need to look to other worlds for that. Nonbinary, genderqueer, agender, and gender-neutral people right here on Earth are writing, editing, and asking other writers and editors to broaden their vocabularies in ways that acknowledge and respect a broad spectrum of gender identities. The Chicago Manual’s decision to endorse that goal is a major step forward in that process.
Sarah Grey is a professional editor and winner of the American Copy Editors Society’s Robinson Prize in 2016. She writes on food, politics, and language for Philadelphia Weekly, Spoonful, Saveur, Lucky Peach, Bitch, Jacobin, and more and was included in Best Food Writing 2015. She lives in Philadelphia.