"The nurse who has a low opinion of oneself"

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The path of those who fail to follow the example of scripture is often dark indeed. In particular, in referring to singular quantified entities of indefinite gender,  the King James bible and William Shakespeare agree in recommending the pronouns they, them, themselves ("Shakespeare used they with singular antecedents so there", 1/5/2006; "Is 'singular they' verbally and plenarily inspired of God?", 8/21/2006; "'Singular they': God said it, I believe it, that settles it", 9/13/2006; etc.). But many people have become convinced that this is wrong; and as Horace put itin vitium ducit culpae fuga ("avoidance of error leads to fault").

In particular, it leads to things like these:

"Everyone who calls oneself Catholic will also have to keep the principles of the Catholic faith." [Archbishop Gerhard Müller, Prefect of the CDF, quoted here]

How to convince a teammate, who sees oneself as senior, to learn SVN conceptual basics? [link]

The typical nurse who thinks poorly of oneself is likely to sabotage, snitch, and figuratively 'stab coworkers in the back' to deflect attention away from any shortcomings that he or she might have. Nurses with low self-esteems are all too ready to throw their colleagues under the bus to make themselves look better, even if the effect is short-lived. Thus, the nurse who has a low opinion of oneself is problematic to the rest of us. [link]

The Progressivist vision is to create a new American person who no longer strives to better oneself but accepts one's station in life — and looks to government to help cope not only with difficulties but with every important personal decision. [Paul Ryan, Young Guns]

It's true, as MWDEU says

This use of themself is similar to the use of they, their, and them in reference to singular terms…  Such use of they, their, and them is old and well established, but this use is not.

(See Arnold Zwicky's post "Themself", 3/7/2007, for further discussion. Also note the Shakespeare citation for themselves here.)

Singular themself is certainly out there, however:

How can anyone who calls themself a conservative possibly vote for Newt Gingrich when he supported the bailouts and took 1.5 Million dollars from Freddie Mac. [link]

Membership is open to anyone who considers themself a philosopher, professional or otherwise, and who considers themself a Christian. [link]

This gripping and disturbing book should be read by anyone who finds themself revering a spiritual teacher. [link]

And the substitution of oneself, in my opinion, is much more jarring. In fact, I feel that in my own idiolect of written English (or spoken English, for that matter), things like "The nurse who has a low opinion of oneself" (where oneself refers to the hypothetical nurse) are flat-out ungrammatical.

However, similar things have been around for a while:

Anyone can satisfy oneself very easily that a slight variation in the tension of the spring will not only alter the length of the spark, but also change the electrical excitability of the cathode, and so influence the remaining molecules within the tube, and consequently the X rays. [Proceedings of the Royal Philosophical Society of Glasgow, 1897]

Anyone can demonstrate on oneself in a warm bath the relation Poupart's ligament bears to the conjoined tendon. [Pacific Medical Journal, 1897]

But then again, there are cases like this:

To be an Ishmael with one's hand against everyone because everyone's hand is against oneself, requires chiefly physical courage; but to be a writer of a book that will probably offend not only the supporters of his own class, but the members of the House who were gradually beginning to avow their belief in the nobility of one formerly exciting their hatred, was an act of high moral courage, and could only have arisen from strong conviction of the necessity for so writing. [Constance Plumptre, Studies in Little-Known Subjects, 1896]

[Note: This post started from the Paul Ryan quote, cited in Gail Collins, "Veeps wielding pens", NYT  7/18/2012]

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50 Comments »

  1. Jonathon said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 1:17 pm

    I agree that this use of "oneself" seems flat-out ungrammatical. I think it needs to refer back to a previous "one", but there isn't one.

    On a related note, this is a real sentence that I came across while copy editing: "Because one would never want to be misrepresented, he or she does all in their power to ensure that the other party's point of view is properly stated and represented." I'm not sure if this is outright ungrammatical too, but it's certainly jarring.

  2. Stan said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 1:20 pm

    Going by Google Books Ngram, the use of themself appears to be gradually increasing. I'm all for it, and have used it myself on occasion; there are times when it's simply the most suitable pronoun. (I analyse a few examples in my recent post on themself.)
    A pity it's not yet widely accepted as standard.

  3. Zythophile said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 1:25 pm

    Certainly in my idiolect my initial interpretation of "The typical nurse who thinks poorly of oneself" would be that the nurse thinks poorly of ME.

  4. Brian said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 1:32 pm

    I agree with Zythophile; to me the main reason those earlier sentences are ungrammatical is because "oneself" is being used to refer to a third-person subject, as opposed to me the reader. I note that both of the 1897 examples do NOT have that fault, which is probably why they feel more natural.

  5. GeorgeW said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 1:37 pm

    I vote ungrammatical. I think 'oneself' requires a general, non-specific referent.

    *Susan who thinks poorly of oneself . . .
    * I who think poorly of oneself . . .
    To think poorly of oneself . . .

  6. Eric said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 1:42 pm

    The "anyone"/"everyone" cases (e.g. "Anyone can satisfy oneself…") don't seem nearly as jarring to me as the rest. Perhaps I'm just being lulled by the occurence of "one" in "anyone" and "everyone", but it doesn't strike me as particularly ungrammatical for those to stand in for "one" as a referent for "oneself". This may be what Brian above means in reference to the 1897 quotes; I would also apply it to "Everyone who calls oneself Catholic".

  7. James said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 2:18 pm

    Eric's point seems like it should be right — "Anyone can satisfy oneself very easily that…" already has the 'one' in 'anyone', and certainly "One can satisfy oneself that…" is fine. But grammar isn't logical, and for me it's ungrammatical.

  8. Nathan said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 2:48 pm

    The only thing wrong with "themself" is number agreement.
    The only thing wrong with "himself" is an irrelevant connotation of gender.
    But both of these solutions are traditional and useful.
    I would usually use "himself" if I had to choose.

  9. D Sky Onosson said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 3:22 pm

    I agree with Eric. "Everyone who calls oneself Catholic" seems completely unremarkable to me, while "The typical nurse who thinks poorly of oneself" is hard for me to parse at first glance.

  10. joanne salton said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 3:39 pm

    I'm sorry, but I feel "In my idiolect this is ungrammatical" probably isn't going to catch on as the cunning euphemism for "I think this is wrong" which somehow sidesteps the controversies.

    It is a little jarring, as is the original usage in question.

    [(myl) "Wrong" could mean semantically anomalous, archaic, inappropriately regional, inappropriately informal (or formal), and so on. "Ungrammatical" still leaves a lot of possibilities open, but it excludes all of the cited ways of being wrong.]

  11. Ethan said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 3:48 pm

    Isn't the usage in the 1896 quotation odd for a different reason? The sense, as I understand it, is that everyone's hand is raised against Ishmael and therefore Ishmael raises his hand against everyone. The hand-raising is transitive not reflexive. So in generalizing to an Ishmael-like "one", it should read "everyone [else]'s hand is against one [not *oneself]".

    For what it's worth, "everyone … oneself" sounds very wrong to me in all the examples given. I would use themself/themselves with no hesitation.

  12. Eric P Smith said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 4:03 pm

    @Jonathan: I think the example you give is ungrammatical only to the extent that singular "they" is ungrammatical (ie not at all ungrammatical according to modern descriptive principles). But surely the best solution is "Because one would never want to be misrepresented, one does all in one's power…" It's just as grammatical as "Because you would never want to be misrepresented, you do all in your power…" A bit stuffy, though, perhaps.

  13. boris said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 4:04 pm

    I don't know, themself just seems wrong to me (so does oneself in the cited examples). But what's wrong with singular "themselves"?

  14. chris said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 4:19 pm

    @joanne salton: It's not a euphemism, it's an honest acknowledgment that linguistic questions are more complex than 2 + 2 = 5, and correspondingly, the answers are less clear-cut. E.g., the rest of the thread.

  15. Peter F said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 4:51 pm

    @joanne salton: I don't think euphemism effectively captures the distinction between the two. "I think this is wrong" is a judgement of some abstract, unspecified correctness of the usage in question. Perhaps if some particular grammar is being assumed (e.g. if the author were a staunch defender of UK headline-ese as the purest form of the English language) the meaning would be similar, but as the case stands the author is making no such (explicit) assessment of correctness. Even the designation of "jarring" is hedged by "in my opinion."

    Perhaps it is a more technical stand-in for "that doesn't work for me" or "I wouldn't say that," but the phrase in question is much more specific. It only hides some prescriptive elitism if such feeling is, in fact, there to be hidden.

  16. Mia said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 4:59 pm

    @Ethan: The Ishmael one actually sounds fine to me; maybe I'm doing some kind of logophoric interpretation with it? Maybe not, though, since I can't replace 'one' with another pronoun:

    I am an Ishmael with my hand against everyone because everyone's hand is against me/*myself.

    For what it's worth, I speak a dialect where 'themself' (as in 'Everyone likes themself') is totally grammatical, and unremarkable.

    (Amusingly, this spell checker on Chrome that I keep trying and failing to turn off tells me that 'themself' — like 'logophoric' — is not a word.)

  17. Jeroen Mostert said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 5:18 pm

    To me, "themself" doesn't register as a word period, and "oneself" does but it simply cannot be used like this. It's mixing up first and third persons, per Zythophile and Brian. One must decide for oneself what one considers correct, but if one particular person disagreed, they would have to decide for themselves what they consider correct.

  18. Ellen K. said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 5:34 pm

    Boris, what's wrong with singular themselves is it's ungrammatical.

    Of course, I'm speaking of my own idiolect. I really don't know how many others find singular themselves ungrammatical.

    I could use logic. It's wrong because "selves" has a plural inflection, plural of self, and so it's illogical to use it with a single referent, even along side a sometimes plural pronoun. That that idea is part of the picture.

    But, still, grammar isn't always logical. So that logic doesn't make it wrong. If enough people use it, if it's part of the social code we call language, then it's not wrong. And maybe that's the case. Just because it doesn't work for me personally doesn't make it wrong.

    At the same time, "themselves" being acceptable for singular usage doesn't make "themself" wrong.

  19. Ellen K. said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 5:45 pm

    "In my idiolect this is ungrammatical", in addition to specifically talking about grammar (see Mark Liberman's comment in red), it also specifies that that one is specifically talking about English (or whatever language) as one speaks it. No judgement is made about anyone else's speech.

    With "I think this is wrong", on the other hand, the natural reading is that one thinks it's wrong, not just for oneself, but for others as well.

    The first has the advantage of being more definitive. I'm saying what I know. Not a guess or a supposition.

  20. Vasha said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 5:46 pm

    I think the Ishmael example is perfectly correct. The whole paragraph is contorted, long-winded and very hard to read, but not ungrammatical.

    [(myl) Absolutely -- that was the point of the example. In that case, the antecedent of oneself is NOT everyone.]

  21. Ray Girvan said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 6:14 pm

    @ML: "The nurse who has a low opinion of oneself" (where oneself refers to the hypothetical nurse) are flat-out ungrammatical.

    Just a two-cents addition from a UK English speaker: totally agreed.

    The word "oneself" might be used by a speaker speaking of themself. A complete jerk might use it as a substitute for "I", as in "One has a low opinion of oneself".

    But I've never heard anyone on planet Earth using it in that way for a general hypothetical person.

  22. Brett said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 6:35 pm

    @Ray Girvan: I have noticed that British usage tends to prefer (or perhaps require) that "one" and "oneself" refer to the speaker. In my American idiolect, "one" strongly prefers a generic referent other than the speaker. (It's also a rather formal way of speaking; the informal version would use "you" instead.) This difference may have a lot to do with which particular versions of this particular usage work for specific individuals. (It also makes some jokes on British television shows I've seen fall bizarrely flat for me.)

  23. Tim May said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 8:37 pm

    It seems that for me (another BrE speaker), the antecedent of "oneself" can be "one" or "anyone" but not "everyone". I find the 1897 examples fine (well, I did on first reading, anyway – looking at them again they seem maybe a little questionable, but not too bad) while "Everyone who calls oneself Catholic" is instantly jarring. "Anyone who calls oneself Catholic" would be better, if not perfectly acceptable.

  24. Chris Waters said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 9:47 pm

    50 year old Californian here, and I find "oneself" quite jarring in the first four examples, but substituting "themself" makes them seem perfectly fine. Of course, I also find "hella" unremarkable, living, as I do, at the epicenter of that bizarre adverb, so I know my opinions on usage are not universal. :)

  25. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    July 20, 2012 @ 12:48 am

    @Brett: In Br Eng I'd suggest that 'one' referring to the speaker generally happens when otherwise 'you' would be used. For example: In reply to the question, "How do you maintain your standards?" the answer could be, "You have to practise every day" or "One has to practise everyday". There seems to be a class of person who has been taught that the second is better. By extension another form is "one practises every day" and because this form of speech is associated with "upper classes" comedians often put 'one' in to the mouths of upper class characters when 'I' would almost certainly be used in reality.

  26. Lazar said,

    July 20, 2012 @ 1:12 am

    I was curious about the pronoun "one" and its apparent similarity to the French "on" – from what I can gather from Etymonline and Wiktionary, the former was influenced by the latter, which itself was derived from "homo" and was a calque of the Germanic "man". So the reason why modern English doesn't use the Germanic "man" is, in a roundabout way, the Germanic "man".

  27. mollymooly said,

    July 20, 2012 @ 1:26 am

    "One" as a modest euphemism for I/me is a genteelism ripe for parody, as in this book about Prince Charles.

    OED1 distinguishes two senses of Indefinite pronoun "one" (with genitive one's); distinguished by tone and (partially) by following pronoun [emphasis added]:

    20. A person or being whose identity is left undefined; some one, a certain one, an individual, a person (L. quidam}. A following pronoun referring to one is in the 3rd pers. sing., as 'One showed himself to his townsmen, who derided him'. In this sense one has the stress of an independent word, which distinguishes it from the next.
    a. simply (arch. or Obs.)
    b. Defined by a sb. in apposition. [He died in 1859, leaving the property in question to one Ann Duncan.]
    c. Defined by a clause or phrase. [The first time that I have heard one with a beard . . avouch himself a coward.]

    21. Any one of everybody; any one whatever; including (and in later language often specially meaning) the speaker himself; 'you, or I, or any one'; a person, a man; we, you, people, they (= OE. man, ME. me, G. man, F. on). Poss. one's, obj. one, reflexively ONESELF (formerly one's self) ; but for these the third person pronouns his, him, himself were formerly usual, and are still sometimes used; thus, 'If one showed oneself (himself) to one's (his) townsmen, they would know one.' (The pl. prons. their, them, themselves, were formerly in general use on account of their indefiniteness of gender, but this is now considered ungrammatical.) In this sense one is quite toneless (wən), proclitic or enclitic.

  28. joanne salton said,

    July 20, 2012 @ 4:17 am

    The essential purpose of the original post, I feel, is really to suggest that "things like these" are "jarring" and "flat-out ungrammatical"

    Will language like this normally be found in a neutral scientific explanation of the issue?

    Also, it seems to me that you probably should have more than one speaker before you can discuss what is or is not "grammatical". Discussing an idiolect, "acceptable" is a less jarring word.

    Clearly the usages (alleged to be avoidance tactics caused by adherence to prescription, as I understand) that are classed above as "errors-in-my-idiolect" are perfectly valid in the idiolects of those who wrote them. In general, though, I personally prefer to avoid language use that others may flag up and class as something they themselves see as an error when I am trying to write formal, standard, English. Otherwise, I will, possibly unfairly, be seen as an idio-something.

  29. Chris said,

    July 20, 2012 @ 4:21 am

    Singular "themselves" sounds entirely grammatical and unremarkable to me (Australian English speaker), at least as far as the spoken language is concerned. I would find it jarring if anyone used anything else.

  30. David Morris said,

    July 20, 2012 @ 4:52 am

    I don't like singular 'they', 'themself', 'themselves' and avoid them whenever I can, but I have to admit that there are times when there's just no alternative. Sounding wrong is always better than being wrong.

  31. James said,

    July 20, 2012 @ 7:21 am

    I don't understand Joanne Salton's point. Saying of a particular usage that it sounds jarring is simply a self-description in disguise; there is no problem with contributing a description of one's own linguistic reactions to a discussion of an oddity of grammar, surely! (How else could such a thing be studied?) It's clear that commenters here have no thought of substituting their own subjective reactions for a proper scientific conclusion; I take it we're interested in reading other people's reactions and contributing our own as a share.

    Maybe this will help clarify:
    Singular 'themselves' appears to be much less common than singular 'their'. The reactions of commenters here (including me) seems to match this general pattern: many of us (though not all) are quite happy with singular 'their' but would never write singular 'themselves' and find it jarring when we read it.

    But obviously (??) to say this is in no way to scold others, like Chris, who are comfortable with singular 'themselves', or David Morris, who is somewhat uncomfortable with all of the singular 'they' forms. It's just data.

  32. johnesh said,

    July 20, 2012 @ 7:40 am

    Personally, I would use "himself" or "herself" or, at a push, singular "themselves" which is, to me, far more acceptable than "themself".

  33. Ellen K. said,

    July 20, 2012 @ 8:28 am

    joanne salton: Clearly the usages (alleged to be avoidance tactics caused by adherence to prescription, as I understand) that are classed above as "errors-in-my-idiolect" are perfectly valid in the idiolects of those who wrote them.

    No, that's not clear. People can and do write things that aren't perfectly valid in their idiolect. People write things that are flat out errors and not at all valid in their idiolect. People edit their writing such that they end up with things that, while not outright invalid in their idiolect, are also not "perfectly valid", but, one could say, imperfectly valid, or semi-valid.

  34. joanne salton said,

    July 20, 2012 @ 9:42 am

    My point is that actually a nose is being held, in truth, especially because this is designated to be an error caused by hypercorrection, an error which it is therefore acceptable to attack. Would you feel comfortable if you saw your writing discussed in this way?

    People do make errors, Ellen K., but surely the suggestion here is not that the writer would view it as such when looking back. They seem to have chosen these forms explicity. I do not see why they should be seen as "semi-valid" in their own idiolect. This is what they view as formal, standard English – even if they are not sure. The distinction that is sometimes created between lamentable attempts at high-flown language which we can reasonably complain of, and sentences produced in normal circumstances, is a rather artificial one. We are after all trying to fit in with other people – at all times, in all registers. We do this both subconciously, and sometimes consciously, in all registers.

  35. Ellen K. said,

    July 20, 2012 @ 10:35 am

    Wow, way to twist what I said, Joanne.

    Saying, when reading something someone else wrote, that it's not valid in my own idiolect, is NOT a judgement of any kind towards the person who wrote it, nor is it a suggestion that what they said is wrong, ungrammatical, or an error of some kind. It's simply an observation that the usage is different from one's own, without regard to whether that's due to language variation, error, or something else.

    And my point in my reply to you is that your use of the word "clearly" is inappropriate, because we can't see inside someone's head. To assume that everything someone writes is perfectly valid in their own idiolect is extremely naive. To assume that what people write is usually valid in their own idiolect is reasonable. But such a viewpoint does not merit your "clearly". "Clearly" goes beyond that reasonable assumption. And evenmopre so when combined with "perfectly valid".

    And in talking about errors and stuff that one might call semi-valid in a person's idiolect, I'm NOT talking about this construction in particular, nor talking about judging anyone else's writing. I'm simply explaining why we can't assume that if someone wrote something, that it's "perfectly valid" in their idiolect. And with "semi-valid" or "imperfectly valid" what I have in mind is when people edit their writing from their original wording, either as they write it, or later when proofreading or otherwise editing. Sometimes, they come up with things that aren't mistakes, but aren't really properly fully part of their idiolect.

  36. James said,

    July 20, 2012 @ 11:08 am

    I just don't agree that this usage of 'oneself' is here being 'designated to be an error', and certainly not 'acceptable to attack', Joanne.
    I suspect you have misunderstood the tenor of the comments, really.

  37. Mr Punch said,

    July 20, 2012 @ 12:34 pm

    We're working to get around the gender specificity built into our language, and sometimes the result is messy. The (perceived) problem with "Everyone who calls oneself a Catholic" isn't really number agreement — "Everyone who calls herself a nun" would seem right to most people, I'd guess.

    The trouble with "a teammate, who sees oneself as senior" is different; there's an implied antecedent since one teammate must have another, who is the one the explicitly identified teammate appears to regard as senior. This isn't wrong, okay? It just fails utterly as communication. Far be it from me to suggest that the writer isn't fully entitled to blather on meaninglessly if he or she chooses.

    [(myl) No, that's not what the writer meant. "A teammate, who sees oneself as senior" (from the context) clearly was meant to mean "A teammate, who sees himself (or herself) as senior".]

  38. D Sky Onosson said,

    July 20, 2012 @ 12:43 pm

    To state that something "is much more jarring" and that "in my own idiolect of written English (or spoken English, for that matter), things like … are flat-out ungrammatical," doesn't strike me as overly critical – it's a description of the OP's idiolect only, and which in at least one instance (see my previous post) differs from my own idiolect.

    If it were in fact my own writing or speech under discussion, which has certainly happened at times, I don't think I would feel overly self-conscious about it. As a linguist, I accept that my own use of my native language isn't necessarily exactly the same as everyone else's – and that's not a problem.

  39. Rod Johnson said,

    July 20, 2012 @ 1:10 pm

    I remember being, well, jarred the first time I saw "themselve" (you know, the singular of "themselves") in a student paper, but Google turns up quite a few hits.

  40. Eric P Smith said,

    July 20, 2012 @ 3:40 pm

    @moolymooly: Indeed one as a modest euphemism for I/me in the UK is a genteelism ripe for parody, not least because it was much used by the present Royal Family in decades past.

  41. The Ridger said,

    July 20, 2012 @ 4:59 pm

    I say "themself". I generally write "themselves". That "they" is marked as plural has no more relevance for me than that "you" is. I have no problem with 'yourself/yourselves' depending, or "you are" instead of "you is" for one person. I also have been known to use generic "you" – a lot, in fact – and occasionally "one". But for me, "one" can't go back to a specific person as in the nurse or teammate examples: for me, that "one" must mean a different person, probably the generic "you".

  42. Faldone said,

    July 20, 2012 @ 6:16 pm

    I am totally baffled by objections to singular "themself". Does anyone have a similar problem with singular "yourself"?

  43. Chris Brew said,

    July 20, 2012 @ 7:59 pm

    Glorious bathetic opening to the article. Felicitations!

  44. Gene Callahan said,

    July 21, 2012 @ 11:12 am

    "People do make errors, Ellen K., but surely the suggestion here is not that the writer would view it as such when looking back."

    Then they are very poor writers, Joanne!

  45. Michael Watts said,

    July 21, 2012 @ 3:49 pm

    I actually do parse "the nurse who has a low opinion of oneself" — as I have to interpret it, it refers to a nurse who holds a low opinion of the speaker or addressee, pretty much synonymous with a reference to "the nurse who has a low opinion of you".

  46. Ken Brown said,

    July 21, 2012 @ 5:11 pm

    Yes. Without help from context, "the nurse with a low opinion of oneself" looks like a hypercorrection for "the nurse with a low opinion of you". Where "you" (or "one" refers to whoever the nurse happens to be talking to.

  47. Ken Brown said,

    July 21, 2012 @ 5:19 pm

    Same goes for everyone who calls oneself a catholic.

    It looks like an over-elaboration of "one". I think I would have read it that way if the OP hadn't telegraphed it ahead as an ungrammatical substitution for "themself".

    So this then is a rare example of bad grammar that really does lead to ambiguity – the very thing the over-zealous peevologists use as their excuse for banning singular "they".

  48. BMB said,

    July 22, 2012 @ 3:30 pm

    To sidestep the question of 'oneself', I find it fascinating to see that many would prefer 'themself' to 'themselves' in these sentences.

    I think I would generally would say 'themselves' in these sentences (Canadian English), but I've suddenly realized that while I have a slight preference for plural '-selves' with universal quantifiers, I think I could use either '-self' or '-selves' with existentials and with singular non-gender-specified antecedents (where in my dialect I can use 'they' even when talking about a person whose gender I know).

    Compare the following (judgements in parentheses my own):

    (1) Everyone who thinks poorly of themself/themselves… (SG=?, PL=ok)

    (2) Someone who thinks poorly of themself/themselves… (SG=PL=ok)

    (3) I had a friend who thought poorly of themself/themselves a scholar. (SG=PL=ok)

    Anyone else share these judgements? Wildly disagree?

  49. Daniel Barkalow said,

    July 23, 2012 @ 2:41 pm

    I remember at some point getting the reaction from people that single-referent "they" is uniformly plural in form, and has a reflexive of "themselves" much like it takes "are" as a verb. Since single-referent "they" is certainly much less common than single-referent "you", it doesn't necessarily merit its own reflexive form.

  50. Ellen K. said,

    July 23, 2012 @ 5:52 pm

    Being less common than something else is irrelevant to whether it merits it's own reflexive form. I'm not sure how common it is is really that relevant at all, actually, but commonness relative to something else is even less relevant than simply how common it is.

    And while singular probably is, as you say, less common than singular you, still, it's hardly rare. And for me, "themselves" referring to a clearly singular referent doesn't work.

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