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I was reading this article on the New York Times. This sentence caused me some confusion:

But what I’m teaching are topics such as 5th-century Indian theories of logical inference, or the concept of qualitative atomism in classical Buddhism: material that is sufficiently obscure that no student, of any background, should be expected at the outset to recognize him or herself in it.

Shouldn't the last part of this sentence be '…himself or herself in it'?

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Naw, it should be themself. :) –  tchrist Aug 27 '12 at 1:15
Or I suppose you could use a suspended hyphen after him "...to recognize him- or herself in it." Otherwise, I think you're right, it should be himself or herself. I usually like tchrist's answers a lot, but this time I think I disagree. I don't like using plural pronouns and possessives with a singular antecedent. –  JLG Aug 27 '12 at 1:32
@JLG It doesn’t work that way. Themself is no more plural than yourself is. But it doesn’t matter if it is, because things aren’t notionally plural like that in English, since they/them/their are all fully capable of being the unmarked-for-gender singular, and always have been, where always means over the last 600 years. –  tchrist Aug 27 '12 at 1:36
@JLG Compare the natural "If someone shows up with their own idea, then them that they can keep it to themselves, because we like ours better than theirs." with insane "If someone shows up with his or her own idea, then him or her that he or she can keep it to himself or herself, because we like ours better than his or hers." Nobody but nobody speaks like that. It is unnatural. –  tchrist Aug 27 '12 at 1:40
@tchrist, You're right that that example sounds unnatural. I would reword it if presented with that sentence. (Note: My American Heritage Dictionary doesn't even have "themself" in it.) In the OP's sentence, the writer went to the trouble to use him or herself, I think he could have gone the distance and used himself or herself. –  JLG Aug 27 '12 at 1:48

1 Answer 1

up vote 4 down vote accepted

As others have suggested, himself or herself or him- or herself are possible and acceptable; I feel that him or herself is also fine, and perhaps even better.

Although, indeed, him(-) or herself looks like illegitimately cutting up a word, this is how I think most people would say it in speech. Speech is normally leading in such cases, unless this gives you clearly unacceptable results.

As to the hyphen, English normally only uses hyphens where they are necessary to avoid ambiguity, as in compound adjectives. This means that many style books will recommend that you hyphenate an ill-advised proposal, but not this proposal is ill advised, since the latter is not at all ambiguous.

However, some style books will choose to hyphenate even is ill advised, for the sake of consistency; there is something to be said for that. But in general, hyphenation is not extremely strict, and it often comes down to common sense. (Notice the contrast with to other European languages, such as Dutch, where the hyphen would be mandatory in hem- of haarzelf and with all noun adjectives, such as noun adjective. I believe the same applies to German. I don't think this construction is even possible in French.)

In the case of two compound words where part of the first one is omitted in ellipsis, as in him(-) or herself, I would only add the hyphen if it were required to avoid ambiguity, which is not the case in this example. Hyphens slightly disrupt the flow of reading. I believe Fowler agrees with me here in his Modern English Usage. So I would simply write it as the New York Times does:

No student, of any background, should be expected at the outset to recognize him or herself in it.

You could also use themselves and change the subject to students, use themselves with a singular antecedent, or use only himself—but let's not rake up that discussion.

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Do you mean himself or herself in your sentences (like in the OP's question)? –  JLG Aug 27 '12 at 4:13
@JLG: Oops! Yes, fixed. The construction is the same btw. –  Cerberus Aug 27 '12 at 6:05
I guess so, but if you were to say himself and herself, couldn't you just say themselves? –  JLG Aug 27 '12 at 12:23
@JLG: You could, but you could also use themselves instead of him or herself. It's just a somewhat different construction (and purist won't be happy). I guess what you are saying is that themselves is almost mandatory is nearly all and cases; I think you may be right. –  Cerberus Aug 27 '12 at 14:38

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