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“Neither is” or “neither are”

Say you take a photo of Billy and Suzy, but they both end up looking funny. Would you say

Neither Billy nor Suzy look like themselves?

Neither Billy nor Suzy look/looks like themselves/himself/herself?

I'm confused because usually with singular subjects, I would use a singular verb, saying "Neither Billy nor Suzy is coming to the party," but this sounds off when I refer to the subjects with a pronoun later in the sentence.

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marked as duplicate by FumbleFingers, Robusto, kiamlaluno, Mitch, Daniel Jul 20 '12 at 17:52

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

1  
I'm not so much worried about the subject-verb agreement here, but more about which pronoun would follow. –  Fergus West Jul 6 '12 at 21:55
    
Your concern about which pronoun would follow is a direct result of the agreement in number between subject and verb. Why else would you offer two forms of the verb for consideration? –  Robusto Jul 6 '12 at 22:02
    
@Fergus West: Since you've named two referents for your pronoun, obviously it'll have to be plural - so themselves is the only possibility in your example. –  FumbleFingers Jul 6 '12 at 22:02
    
So the correct form is "Neither Billy nor Suzy looks like themselves?" –  Fergus West Jul 6 '12 at 22:05
1  
I don't believe themself exists in British English (yet). It's more likely to be theirself and that hasn't really made it over the acceptability hurdle into written English yet. –  Andrew Leach Jul 6 '12 at 22:34

1 Answer 1

If you follow the chain of apparently duplicate questions starting with "Neither is" or "neither are", you will find general agreement that Neither...nor takes the singular verb.

Neither Billy nor Suzy looks like...

However none of the other questions address what reflexive pronoun to use.

Because the verb is singular, and the reflexive pronoun needs to refer to the subject of the verb, that should be singular too. So it's either himself or herself. The pedantic answer is that it's himself because a generic masculine term includes the feminine.

However, themselves has become a generic sexless singular reflexive pronoun, and it's doubly convenient here because we are talking about two people who share the characteristic of a bad photograph.

Neither Billy nor Suzy looks like themselves.

On the other hand, because the sentence is so short, using a singular verb in this case with themselves seems really odd. The effect is intensified if you remove "like" to say that Billy didn't "look himself" (ie., "quite as he normally does," or even, "ill") in the photo.

Neither Billy nor Suzy look like themselves.
Neither Billy nor Suzy look themselves in that photo.

The end result is that you end up either pedant or miscreant. I'd go for the former, but I can understand that the latter is attractive.

Neither Billy nor Suzy looks like himself in that photo.
Neither Billy nor Suzy look like themselves in that photo.

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...And now I've refreshed the page and there are lots of comments coming to much the same conclusion. Sorry about that. –  Andrew Leach Jul 6 '12 at 22:17
    
I’d say themself not themselves, although I would have to be courageous to do so in writing. –  tchrist Jul 6 '12 at 23:36

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