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Is there a correct gender-neutral, singular pronoun (“his” versus “her” versus “their”)?
Gender neutral reflexive pronoun — equivalent to “himself” and “herself”

I am thinking "themself" is a very old deprecated way of saying this. What would be more proper?

An example would be:

One does not simply build Rome themself.

It just seems awkward with "themself."

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How about oneself? –  cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 May 23 '12 at 17:18
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I'm not sure deprecated means what you think it does. –  JLG May 23 '12 at 17:21
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What JLG said. Personally, I think themself/themselves is more common today than it ever was. It used to be a somewhat "dialectal/informal" usage, but its PC gender-neutral qualities are helping it to gain currency. –  FumbleFingers May 23 '12 at 18:08
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The pairs are one + oneself, not one + themself. If someone asked you whether they could do it for themself, that is different from whether one should ask whether one can do it for oneself. See? –  tchrist May 24 '12 at 16:17
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marked as duplicate by TimLymington, Mahnax, Matt Эллен, tchrist, JSBձոգչ May 23 '12 at 18:49

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2 Answers

up vote 2 down vote accepted

Singular they is a usage hallowed by time, and, since reflexive pronouns are inflected on both the pronoun root and the -self/-selves reflexive suffix (e.g, my[sg]-self[sg] vs our[pl]-selves[pl]), the correct reflexive for singular they is themself.

Dictionaries, by the way, are not reliable sources for grammar, just as grammars are not reliable sources for lexical meaning.

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I treat the OED as, among other things, a corpus, if a rather specialised kind of corpus. –  Barrie England May 23 '12 at 18:35
    
I found 41 occurrences in the OED, from Caxton's 1483 "Humble themself the one ageynst the other", to a 1978 quotation from American Speech "Personal singular you similarly takes what is formally a plural verb form (are, were), as do French vous, German Sie, and Russian vy; as with singular they-themself, this `pluralization' of singular you can be said to follow reflexivization (whence a plural verb but a singular reflexive yourself)." –  John Lawler May 23 '12 at 19:00
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The reflexive and emphatic pronoun is themselves. The OED has no entry for themself. An example of its use in the way you have in mind might be:

If a student needs to ask for permission to leave the campus during the week, they must do it themselves, and not ask a fellow student to do it on their behalf.

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That example sentence would become much less awkward if you simply replaced "a student" with "students". I know this site tends to be a strong proponent of singular they, but that doesn't mean it should be used at every opportunity. –  Marthaª May 23 '12 at 18:10
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Google Books claims 939K entries for themself, and 1590K for theirself. I don't have a problem with either, regardless of OED. –  FumbleFingers May 23 '12 at 18:14
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@FumbleFingers: I was reporting the OED, not necessarily commending it for its lack of an entry for 'themself'. FWIW, the COCA has 96 records for 'themself' (BNC 26), 23 for 'theirself' (BNC 16), 41 for 'theirselves' (40 ) and 91825 for 'themsleves' (BNC 23012). –  Barrie England May 23 '12 at 18:47
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@FumbleFingers The OED actually mentions themself under its themselves headword, saying “in Standard English themself was the normal form to c1540, but disappeared c1570”. It occurs in 52 citations. Burchfield mentions it. I think it is not very uncommon these days, where people use themself when the antecedent is “singular they”. I wouldn’t consider themselves wrong, but this may someday change: we don’t say yourselves for a single person any longer. –  tchrist May 23 '12 at 18:48
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@tchrist: Thanks for your more thorough research. But 'not very uncommon'? The corpora suggest otherwise. –  Barrie England May 23 '12 at 18:53
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