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How would you refer to a gender neutral subject with a reflexive pronoun?

It is unbelievable how a perpetrator will cast oneself in the role of victim.

That does not seem right. Is there a better word other than "oneself"? I thought "oneself" would refer to the narrator. Here I try to refer to the subject.

Themselves: It is possible to use a 'singular they' for pronouns, but to say "themselves" surely can not be correct as a gender neutral reflexive pronoun? According to this article, it would only seem to make sense when qualified by a singular they.

Themself: "The form is not widely accepted in standard English" according to the Oxford dictionary.

It is unbelievable how they, as a perpetrator, will cast themselves in the role of victim.

I'd like to avoid making the sentence this complex.

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I, personally, would just use themself, wide acceptance in standard English be damned. – nohat Jul 21 '11 at 18:39
Maybe it's an age-related thing. I don't think I particularly interpret himself here as implying the perp is a male. The fact that I do think "he" is more likely to be male is mainly because in the real world more males than females are so classified. "If person could die if he ate rat poison" implies very little about gender to me. – FumbleFingers Jul 21 '11 at 19:23
The Oxford Dictionary may cast aspersions upon "themself", but the Oxford English Dictionary mentions the use of both "themself" and "themselves" with singular antecedents, with no suggestion that the use is problematic. ("Themselves" is used in constructions where it is paired with things like "Every one", "themself" in constructions like yours.) – Henry May 26 '12 at 16:23
Everyone saying you can just substitute "him or herself" is missing the fact that some people use gender neutral pronouns. Ie.) trans* and genderqueer individuals. So...the correct pronoun to refer to someone who uses gender neutral pronouns would be neither "himself" nor "herself." And sorry...but working with "the queer community" doesn't entitle you to choose a pronoun for someone else. There are a whole lot of genders and pronouns out there. You can no more use "hir" to cover all your bases than you can use "him." It's not a cover-all-your-bases with a randomly selected pronoun kind of sit – user107443 Jan 26 '15 at 2:46
up vote 4 down vote accepted

This is just another version of the he/she, him/her dilemma: English lacks singular pronouns that include both genders. I like @drm65's approach to avoiding the problem. The other likely option is to specify both:

"himself or herself"

It is unbelievable how a perpetrator will cast himself or herself in the role of victim.


"him or herself"

It is unbelievable how a perpetrator will cast him or herself in the role of victim.

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You could circumvent the problem and avoid overcomplexity by merely pluralizing the subject:

It is unbelievable how perpetrators will cast themselves in the role of victim.

This is what I would do in this case, as neither oneself, themselves, or themself are widely endorsed here, and as there is no such thing in English as a singular gender neutral reflexive pronoun.

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I disagree with the notion of there being such a thing as "strict" correctness-- it's just arbitrary opinion at the end of the day (practically no language has a 1-1 correspondence between its pronouns and the precise types/combinations of people they refer to-- you can probably invent spurious reasons for saying that any use of any pronoun is "incorrect" if you go down that road). But, I agree with your pragmatic solution to allay potential whingers. – Neil Coffey Jul 21 '11 at 18:57
+1 as the only logical alternative would be "itself" - and that probably won't fly in general usage :) – Martin S. Stoller Jul 21 '11 at 19:16
"[...]as there is no such thing in English as a singular gender neutral reflexive pronoun"... yet. – karan.dodia Jul 21 '11 at 19:34
@Neil: I edited the strictness out of the answer. – Daniel Jul 21 '11 at 19:56
@Neil: There is such a thing as strictness, though, and that was my point. – Daniel Jul 21 '11 at 20:00

The word themself has been used for centuries in conjunction with the singular gender-neutral "they". The singular "they" fell into disrepute among prescriptive grammarians, and brought the word themself with it. Since we are now reviving the singular "they" (which was in disrepute with the prescriptive grammarians), there is no reason we shouldn't revive themself as well.

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If you want to stretch the boundaries of English:

Working with the Queer Community, I've found hir [hēr] (∴hirself) to be the most intuitive/easy to assimilate neologism.


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How do you pronounce 'hir' and 'hirself'? If it's pronounced the same as 'her' and 'herself' it would convey a feminine connotation. – Kalamane Jul 21 '11 at 21:42
@James it's pronounced with the e from he: ē. Very similar to hear or here, but with emphasis on the vowel. – Shad Jul 21 '11 at 23:52

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