Choosing their pronouns for oneself

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The following sentence can be found (as of 15 September 2016) in this Wikipedia article about the effects of rape on the victim:

Sometimes in an effort to shield oneself from believing such a thing could happen to their loved one, a supporter will make excuses for why the event occurred.

The clash in pronoun choice (the switch from one to their) makes this clearly anomalous. What exactly could have led to its being written? I think at least two unease-promoting factors are involved.

First, although everyone knows the indefinite-reference third-person pronoun one, and its inflectional forms one, one’s, and oneself, it sounds rather pompous, and one is somewhat reluctant to use it. As soon as one gets into constructing a sentence that requires one to use multiple tokens of one, one finds oneself feeling reluctant to proceed: one is trapped in a linguistic mode that makes one sound as if one is a member of the British royal family, which of course one isn’t.

Second, although indefinite-reference they with syntactically singular antecedents (No one should insult their mother) is perfectly natural and idiomatic, we balk at using its reflexive form because we aren’t quite sure whether it should be themselves (as with syntactically plural antecedents, when it denotes a group of entities in the ordinary way) or themself (which certainly exists and has been used for hundreds of years but is currently rather rare and might be regarded as non-standard).

So the hapless writer must have started writing this sentence:

Sometimes in an effort to shield oneself from believing such a thing could happen to one’s loved one, a supporter will make excuses for why the event occurred.

And promptly found that two occurrences of pronominal one in a row followed by loved one (which contains the common noun one, a different item) was one one too much for one.

The alternative would have been to try this:

Sometimes in an effort to shield themself from believing such a thing could happen to their loved one, a supporter will make excuses for why the event occurred.

That not only has the potentially deprecated singular reflexive themself, which broadly I would favor, it uses it cataphorically: the reflexive pronoun comes before its antecedent (their), which itself is a cataphoric pronoun, preceding its own antecedent (a supporter). That all makes the use of singular they rather salient, and may have given the writer pause. And of course it is no better to write this instead:

Sometimes in an effort to shield themselves from believing such a thing could happen to their loved one, a supporter will make excuses for why the event occurred.

That has the same problem, plus another one: the cataphoric themselves clearly sets the reader up to expect a plural antecedent, because of its visibly plural morphological form, but then there turns out not to be one, and the singular ultimate antecedent. a supporter comes as rather a shock.

What is left as an alternative? The appallingly clumsy disjunctive he or she would be one possibility:

Sometimes in an effort to shield himself or herself from believing such a thing could happen to his or her loved one, a supporter will make excuses for why the event occurred.

That is so grotesquely clumsy that I don’t think any writer of conscience could stomach it.

Writing English prose isn’t easy, is it? I leave comments open below to allow readers to experiment with rewriting the sentence so that it is smooth and idiomatic and not susceptible to prescriptive quibbles or style criticism.



45 Comments

  1. Steve Shulman-Laniel said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 12:37 pm

    Me, I’d just use the plural everywhere:

    ‘Sometimes, in an effort to shield themselves from believing such a thing could happen to their loved ones, supporters will make excuses for why the event occurred.’

  2. Mara K said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 12:49 pm

    I use singular “themselves”, mostly because “themself” doesn’t sound right to me yet.

  3. Quodlibet said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 12:51 pm

    Is there some reason we couldn’t avoid the cataphoric pronouns altogether by starting with “Sometimes a supporter”?

  4. Mark Meckes said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 1:06 pm

    I’d probably start with singular “themselves”, as Mara K suggests. Then I might worry that singular they sounds too informal for the context and try plural everywhere, as Steve Shulman-Laniel suggests. But in the end I’d probably decide that the sentence would work better with fewer pronouns: “Sometimes, in an effort to avoid believing such a thing could happen to a loved one, a supporter will make excuses for the event,” along the lines of Quodlibet’s suggestion.

  5. Brian said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 1:08 pm

    So, something like this:

    Sometimes a supporter will make excuses for why the event occurred, in an effort to shield themself from believing such a thing could happen to their loved one.

    I suspect that the original author would feel that this loses a bit of rhetorical force, though that could be fixed by altering the context. I think I would prefer the original ordering if the sentence is meant to introduce a longer discussion of the subject. This version feels more like part of a briefer acknolwedgement of an issue.

    Personally I would go full-plural, as Steve described above.

  6. Michael Rank said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 1:09 pm

    How about: “Sometimes in an effort to shield oneself from believing such a thing could happen to a loved one, a supporter will make excuses for why the event occurred.” Avoids all the pitfalls rather simply, indeed elegant, innit?

  7. Michael Rank said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 1:10 pm

    Whoops, that should be “elegantly.”

  8. maidhc said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 1:10 pm

    I’m OK with themself-their, but if I were editing for publication, I think Steve Shulman-Laniel’s solution is preferable.

  9. A. Mandel said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 1:11 pm

    Without the pronoun it’s still perfectly clear that we’re talking about self-shielding, not the shielding of others. So take it out:

    “Sometimes, as a shield against believing such a thing could happen to their loved one, a supporter will make excuses for why the event occurred.”

  10. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 1:25 pm

    To my taste, the “one” in question doesn’t go with anaphora or cataphora at all. For encyclopedic English, I like the “full-plural” methods. Then I’d think about whether “make excuses for why the event occurred” is the most precise way to say what it means.

  11. Stan Carey said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 1:29 pm

    Like Brian, I thought of moving the subject forward – but otherwise retaining the structure:

    Sometimes a supporter, in an effort to shield themself/themselves from believing such a thing could happen to their loved one, will make excuses for why the event occurred.

    A comma could be added after Sometimes, to prevent a minor miscue, but at the cost of slowing the line down before it gets going.

    I’m all in favour of themself, and have been keeping an eye on it for a few years; e.g., this post shows how useful it can be. It seems to be gradually (re)gaining in status and popularity.

  12. Gregory Kusnick said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 1:37 pm

    One seems wrong to me, not just because of the awkwardness of one’s loved one, but because the generality of one clashes with the specificity of a supporter.

    Note also that the very next sentence in the Wikipedia article begins “Some support will decide that the survivor put themselves in a bad situation”. So if singular themselves is OK here, it should have been OK in the preceding sentence as well.

  13. Vardibidian said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 1:42 pm

    I agree with A. Mandel, but I’d go further and reduce it to “Sometimes, as a shield against believing such a thing could happen, a supporter will make excuses for why the event occurred.”

    Or perhaps “Sometimes excuses for the rapist act as a shield for a belief that such things do not happen to our loved ones.”

    At any rate, when I look closely at a sentence of mine that has a ‘one’ or a ‘themself’ problem, usually the better path is a total rewrite.

    Thanks,
    -V.

  14. John Hutchinson said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 1:54 pm

    For me the least problematic one would be with “themselves”. Using “one”, “oneself” in this context when the referent is specified by a full noun phrase (“supporter”) seems weird to me; it makes it sound like you’re commenting on a story which happened to you. Also, while themself may be grammatical it certainly isn’t my preferred option.

  15. Greg Malivuk said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 1:58 pm

    My personal tendency (and advice to ESL students) is to pluralize everything when the sentence is generic to begin with. It avoids ‘he or she’ awkwardness as well as prescriptivist whining about singular ‘they’ and is usually perfectly clear.

    In addition, “one” seems wrong here regardless, as mentioned above, because it refers to “a supporter”, and at least in my dialect it’s not grammatical to use generic ‘one’ to refer to any explicitly stated noun (even when the noun itself is generic, like “a person”).

  16. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 2:14 pm

    A further possible influence from context: this sentence occurs in the middle of a section where the beginning and end seem to be written in a “clinical” sort of register that sounds neutral and scientific but can also come off as a bit cold and distant, especially when dealing with a sensitive and emotionally-loaded topic. The paragraph this sentence is taken from and the following one seem to be trying to struggle with limited success for a different (less clinical, more sympathetic-sounding) tone but without suddenly getting toop informal in register. That might partially explain the problematic interaction between the hoity-toity use of “one” and the more casual singular-they.

    Of course this is wikipedia, so another possibility is multiple people with different prose styles all trying to tweak the wording of the same passage yielding a result that no one of them would ever have individually uttered or typed.

  17. Acilius said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 2:25 pm

    There are enough contexts where it is useful to have distinct forms for singular and plural that I’m hoping “xe,” “xyr,” and “xyrself” catch on as gender-neutral pronouns.

  18. RW said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 2:28 pm

    Maybe this to sidestep the issue:

    Sometimes, in an effort to avoid believing that such a thing could happen to their loved one, a supporter will make excuses for why the event occurred

    Unfortunately I believe that good writing is not considered desirable by Wikipedia editors. I think you can find really bad writing in almost any article, and I occasionally correct examples when I find them, but generally these fixes get undone. The other day I put a comma after a “however” that needed one, and later found that someone had removed it again and blocked the IP that I edited from.

  19. Francisco said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 2:29 pm

    That the pronoun one is deprecated is news to this one.

  20. Guy said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 3:06 pm

    @Francisco

    It’s extremely formal (well beyond “whom” territory), And one would likely have to stifle giggles if one heard it used in actual extemporaneous speech.

  21. Gregory Kusnick said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 3:26 pm

    Guy: Not where I live (NW US). I wouldn’t say one is common, but I use it fairly often in informal speech without raising eyebrows or provoking giggles.

  22. Michael said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 3:44 pm

    Was going to suggest Michael Rank’s solution, but he beat me there.

  23. WindowlessMonad said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 3:47 pm

    Sometimes in an effort to be shielded from believing such a thing could happen to their loved one, a supporter will make excuses for why the event occurred.

  24. John Roth said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 3:53 pm

    @Acilius:

    I agree, and I’d rewrite it thus:

    “Sometimes in an effort to shield cimself from believing such a thing could happen to cis loved one, a supporter will make excuses for why the event occurred.”

    I’ve been using ce, cim, cis, cimself for several years in private notes, and recently decided to just to it. The big problem with getting acceptance of a real, industrial-strength epicine pronoun is getting agreement on one variety. That may not be suffiicient, but it does seem to be necessary.

    I have a modest proposal for making it happen. Get all the activists who care in a room and don’t let them out until they agree on one set. Then the survivors can go beat up their publishers to get them to allow it.

  25. V said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 4:39 pm

    @John Roth: that seems like an unfortunate choice given that “cis” already means something in the context of gender (i.e. not trans).

    Imagine sentences like “Every trans person deserves support in embracing cis gender identity”…..

  26. Timo said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 5:00 pm

    What Brian says is pretty good.
    But the sentence describes two scenarios: first, the supporter making an effort to shield themselves etc.; and second, the supporter making excuses. Those two scenarios aren’t a circumstance and an action. At best they’re an intention and a consequence.
    Which means that we should definitely consider splitting them up into two sentences:
    Sometimes a supporter will make an effort to shield themselves from believing such a thing could happen to their loved one; so they will make excuses for why the event occurred.

    This preserves the original ordering.
    Let me spare you my thoughts on how there’s never just one stylistic problem in such a sentence (for short: too many levels of abstraction in the first half; unnecessary modalization; garden-pathing etc.). In the context given, you can get rid of the problematic phrase altogether: Sometimes a supporter [will] make[s] excuses for why the event happened. Bam.

  27. JS said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 5:33 pm

    Now it reads “themselves […] a loved one”. Much better… than most of these suggestions ;P

  28. Graeme said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 6:08 pm

    It’s Wikipedia. Why assume a single writer, rather than a committee that never met?

    Also, could it be some folk feel ‘one/self’ is more personal, which might have influenced it’s (unnecessary) inclusion in a topic of this sensitivity? Especially given Wikipedia attracts non-specialist writers and thus a mix of analytical and anecdotal styles.

  29. John said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 6:39 pm

    @Graeme, why assume anything? Just check the page history…

  30. John said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 6:57 pm

    (for Prof Pullum’s information)

    “Priem” is Russian for reception and the Zh in Zhgpz appears to stand for Жанажольский, gpz is possibly a typo for газ: http://www.cnpc-amg.kz/?p=contacts

    What I don’t know is whether someone is using their actual work email to phish or the email address has been compromised.

  31. Usually Dainichi said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 8:55 pm

    Not a native English speaker, but I was immediately surprised that Geoff’s ideolect allows “oneself” to refer to “a supporter” (for the reasons that Greg and Gregory already mentioned). So which of these are grammatical?

    A supporter will shield oneself.

    A supporter will make exuses to shield oneself.

    A supporter will make exuses in an effort to shield oneself.

    In an effort to shield oneself, a supporter will make exuses.

  32. RP said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 1:29 am

    I had actually thought that the inflection was “one”/”one’s”/”oneself” in BrE but “one”/”his”/”himself” in AmE. There are some sources that partly back this up:

    “In the U.S. … one’s is apt to be replaced by a third-person ‘his’ or (more informally) a second-person ‘your’.” ( http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/one.htm )

    That site gives the following examples:
    One must learn from one’s [or his] mistakes.
    One must be conscientious about one’s [or his] dental hygiene.
    One must be conscientious about your dental hygiene.

    I have never come across “one”/”his” in BrE.

    But it’s worth noting that if one were to regard “his” as the usual possessive form of “one”, it would be only a small step to replace that “his” with the gender-neutral “their”.

  33. RP said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 4:28 am

    Just to add to my point above, the OED notes: “Genitive one’s, objective one, reflexively oneself pron. (formerly one’s self); but for these the third person pronouns his, him, himself were formerly usual, and are still usual in the United States”.

  34. pj said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 5:45 am

    @ UsuallyDanaichi, and chiming with RP’s information:
    Native BrEng speaker here, and none of those is ok for me. I can’t use ‘oneself’ with anything but ‘one’. I need something like ‘If one is a supporter, one will…’ throughout.

  35. mollymooly said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 9:01 am

    Bryan Garner:

    One … he. This expression, though historically condemned as inferior to one … one, actually predominates in AmE usage. […] But its future probably isn’t bright: one … he bothers strict grammarians as being less than fully grammatical, and it bothers other readers as being sexist.”

  36. Breffni said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 9:14 am

    Another data point in support of RP’s observation: in Disney’s 1953 Peter Pan, Wendy says “After all, one can’t leave his shadow lying about and not miss it sooner or later.” The character is English, of course (as was the actor), but most of the writers were American.

  37. Coby Lubliner said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 10:56 am

    I seem to be alone in finding nothing wrong with the original sentence. I reed “shield oneself” as a reflexive verb not specifically referring to anyone, and only “their” as referring specifically to “a supporter.”

  38. Gregory Kusnick said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 11:15 am

    Coby: Would you be OK with something like “To shield oneself from the rain, Alice carries an umbrella”?

  39. Somkey the Hors said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 2:23 pm

    I’m astonished that so many commenters are content to leave “make excuses for why the event occurred” unchanged, since that makes me wince as hard as the awkward pronouns do. De gustibus, I guess.

  40. Brett said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 3:53 pm

    @Somkey the Hors: I have no idea what your objection is to that phrase. To me, it is not particularly elegant, but it is perfectly idiomatic.

  41. Joyce Melton said,

    September 18, 2016 @ 1:05 am

    In re non-standard pronouns like xe, xyr, etc. that keep getting suggested:

    What’s wrong with spelling such pronouns thay, thim, thair, thairs, and thimself? At least, the pronunciation would be reasonably evident and consistent with past usage of they, them, their, theirs and themself. While it still probably will never catch on, I at least would know how to read it and what was meant immediately.

  42. Hans Adler said,

    September 18, 2016 @ 2:47 am

    When dealing with Wikipedia, there is almost always more information available than just the text in the current version of the article. Most of it is in the article history, and there are also some tools available for finding the relevant parts. I clicked “View history”, followed the link to “Revision history search”, and searched for “in an effort” as a likely phrase to be included already in the earliest version of the sentence in question. Using the tool, I found that the sentence was first added as part of the following edit:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Effects_and_aftermath_of_rape&diff=prev&oldid=447785677

    The same account subsequently removed then re-added an extra line in the source code that has no effect on the displayed article. This could be an innocent action, but it could also be an attempt to escape scrutiny by other editors, who are often only looking at the last edit to an article. These three edits were the only actions ever by the Wikipedia account “Galarnyk”.

    I could not immediately find a possible source of plagiarism. It is generally worth checking because a lot of people just copy content from random internet sources into Wikipedia. In this case this does not seem to have happened, as all I could find by looking for typical phrases from the added paragraphs post-date the September 2011 edit and are from typical sites that exploit Wikipedia material.

    For easy reference, here is the entire text added by that one edit in 2011:

    > Unfortunately, the victim’s support system is not always the best place for the victim to seek consolation. Sometimes in an effort to shield one’s self from believing such a thing could happen to their loved one, a supporter will make excuses for why the event occurred. Some support will decide that the victim put themselves in a bad situation, even though they didn’t deserve to be raped- which does not help the victim in his or her recovery to hear. The victim will often already internally blame themselves, especially because the violation of boundaries, broken trust, and the feeling of personal danger occurs with rape. If the support system they look to for support is a husband, boyfriend, or spouse- some may be unwilling to accept reality and leave or blame the victim. In that situation, it is even more important to be able to find support in others.

    > Most victims can’t be reassured enough that what happened to them is “not their fault.” When they take the chance to face their biggest “what if” fears, it’s the support they relentlessly receive that helps them fight through shame and feel safe, secure, and grieve in a healthy way. It is a process that takes time, and in most cases therapy, to allow the victim and people close to the victim to process and heal.

    In this case, the research doesn’t really seem to help much, but in general it may. I just wanted to alert everyone here to the possibilities. As all the key features were present even in the first version, I did not examine how the sentence changed over the years. It’s possible that the pronouns were changed occasionally, in an effort to fix the problem without rephrasing the sentence completely.

    By the way, Wikipedia articles are moving targets. The present blog post already prompted some editing and a discussion on the talk page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Effects_and_aftermath_of_rape#Language_Log

  43. Hans Adler said,

    September 18, 2016 @ 2:57 am

    Oops: I forgot to specify the tool I used. It’s called WikiBlame, and it’s linked from the article history page. It’s a bit technical but not impossible to use after some trial and error.

    J.W. Brewer had already noticed that the two paragraphs that were added by this edit are in a different style than the rest of the section. Graeme had asked whether this sentence wasn’t written by a Wikipedia collective. Apparently it wasn’t, though one can never be shure. Theoretically it may be the result of collective writing in a since deleted Wikipedia article, the result of which was copied to the present one.

  44. DWalker07 said,

    September 19, 2016 @ 1:00 pm

    “…one is trapped in a linguistic mode that makes one sound as if one is a member of the British royal family, which of course one isn’t.”

    I would say “… which of course one aren’t”, since, you know, the “royal We” and all. :-)

  45. Richard Johnson said,

    September 20, 2016 @ 12:56 pm

    It could always be rewritten to encourage empathy on the part of the reader:

    “Sometimes in an effort to shield yourself from believing such a thing could happen to your loved one, you might make excuses for why the event occurred.”

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