Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Singular "they"

Language Log has another post up regarding singular "they", in the context of an SAT grammar test and links back to a bunch of previous posts about the phenomenon. In discussing the sentences

This person is not ignorant.
They are a prophet...

Geoffrey Pullum comments:
The sequence they are exhibits, of course, the syntactically correct plural verb agreement. The following phrase a prophet is a singular predicative NP complement.

So here's my question. If you're using they in a singular manner, what's the reflexive form? Themself, or themselves??? The reason I'm asking is because my "significant other" (there's them air quotes John McWhorter was talking about in his LL post!) actually said "themself" the other day. I can't remember the actual sentence, but it was something like "they bought themself an X" where the antecedent for "they" was clearly singular.

I don't know which of the two would be "right", I can see arguments for saying either. Searching for "themself" on Google yields references to an Emily Dickinson poem, some clearly incorrect instances where "themselves" was what the writer wanted, as well as genuine singular-themself instances such as

Everyone post a photo of themself?
inspire one person to better themself on 43 Things

as well as a discussion of this very phenomenon here.


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