While ‘Singular They’ is gaining acceptance — even though we’ve used it all along — the pronoun ‘themself’ still may throw readers.
I recently read an article on The Washington Post about a transgender student’s struggles at college. In the article, I encountered a pronoun I’d never noticed before: themself.
I’ve discussed gender issues and the controversy surrounding Singular They numerous times. Singular They isn’t a problem for anyone until it relates to someone who doesn’t identify in a traditional gender role. Then, all of a sudden, it seems to stick out like a sore thumb. The people who gripe about its use conveniently ignore the fact that Singular They has been around for centuries.
We might use it in a case like this:
Any student who forgets their homework will be assigned double the homework.
In such cases, we use Singular They to avoid having to type out “his or her.” We also use it to avoid having to choose his or her and offending some readers whose pronoun wasn’t selected. (Trust me: I’ve received complaints here when I’ve used a single pronoun in such an instance when it happened to be the opposite gender of the person doing the complaining.) While many of us might not notice or feel slighted, some definitely will.
But ‘themself’ definitely stood out to me
As a writer, and as a journalist in my real job, I try to write using inclusive language. I also try to respect everyone’s gender identity. I don’t believe one has to fully understand all gender issues to at least be able to show respect to those whose identity is different from your own.
The Post article was titled, “A trans woman joined a sorority. Then her new sisters turned on her.” It told the story of a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming. In one passage, it explained that for the student, Artemus, her circle at the college “skewed heavily toward other LGBTQ+ students.” It then explained that one fellow transgender student recently committed suicide.
Note how I phrased that line. It’s generally fairly easy to write a sentence so you don’t require a pronoun.
The Post didn’t phrase it that way. Instead, the article contained this line:
Her social circle at UW at the time skewed heavily toward other LGBTQ+ students. Just weeks earlier, one of them — a fellow transgender student — had killed themself.
Themself looks wrong to me there. It’s not that I can’t acknowledge that there are transgender people. I do and have.
But from a grammar standpoint, the first half of that pronoun, them, screams plural. The second half, self, screams singular. It might have looked less awkward from a grammatical standpoint if the sentence had used themselves.
If we were telling someone this story orally, I bet most people would have used themselves without batting an eye.
But there, in print, sat themself. It looked like a mistake. Worse, it did exactly what a writer shouldn’t want any word they employ to do: It knocked the reader — in this case, me — right out of the story. It seemed like such an error that it stopped me cold. Instead of following along with the point of the story, the terrible frustration and mistreatment this college student is dealing with, I was caught up with an oddly-placed pronoun.
AP Style says there’s nothing wrong with ‘themself’
Because I have to follow The Associated Press Stylebook for my real job, I’m well-versed in how AP Style works. AP Style is full of maddening rules that sometimes seem to follow little rhyme or reason. I’m still fed up over the rule about abbreviating streets but not roads.
When it comes to AP Style, it raises no objection over the use of themself. In fact, it uses it in its own style guide…and not only about gender issues. Consider this line in guidance about people with disabilities:
Do not use euphemisms such as handi-capable, differently-abled or physically challenged, other than in direct quotations or in explaining how an individual describes themself.
They could have written — and I would have written — around the pronoun, ending the sentence with, “…in how individuals describe themselves.”
Individuals is plural, themselves is plural. Same, same. No problem.
Of course, now, we’ve evolved the pronoun so that individual is singular and themself is singular. Same, same.
So why do we have a problem with that particular construction? Perhaps it’s just that it’s something new. But perhaps it’s time we get used to it because it doesn’t appear to be a word that’s in any danger of disappearing.
Yes, I will generally write around words that might cause confusion. But out of respect for other people’s identity, we should respect others’ identity.