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Why is the following sentence incorrect?

"Neither Gore nor Bush could bring themselves to utter a word in defense of scientific truth."

I was told that it should be:

"Neither Gore nor Bush could bring himself to utter a word in defense of scientific truth."

I really don't understand that due to the fact that "Neither Gore nor Bush" implies that both of them did not say a word not just either one of them.

  • Would you then say 'Gore or Bush were speaking'? 'Either Gore or Bush were speaking'? – Edwin Ashworth Oct 1 '13 at 21:43
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    Don't forget the other alternative: Neither Gore nor Bush could bring themself to utter a word in defense of scientific truth. – John Lawler Oct 1 '13 at 21:56
  • @JohnLawler is themself a word? Are you using that example to demonstrate that it's incorrect? I'm not familiar with them as a singular pronoun. (Aside from when it's used incorrectly to reference a person of unspecified gender) – Giambattista Oct 2 '13 at 0:04
  • @JohnQPublic Actually: Well, much as I hate to be the bearer of bad news, themself is a word and it has a long history to boot. LINK. Yes, most authorities agree that it isn’t currently part of the repertoire of accepted reflexive pronouns. – Darius Oct 2 '13 at 0:40
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    @Darius: Which authorities are you citing? I'm an authority, and I have to say that themself meets all the criteria for reflexive pronouns. Who is doing this "accepting"? The Academy? – John Lawler Oct 2 '13 at 1:02
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I would say that most would agree that both are correct, and generally they are informally, but there is technically a reason why himself is correct.

There is a difference between the conjunctions nor/or and and. When the conjunction is and the subject is plural; but when you use or or nor, you're saying that it's one or the other. Here's an example:

Both Bush and Gore could not bring themselves to utter a word in defense of scientific truth.

I've rephrased the sentence to better illustrate what I'm describing:

Bush could not bring himself to utter a word in defense of scientific truth, nor could Gore.

In the first one, you're talking about Bush and Gore together as a pair. The second sentence treats them separately, which is how or and nor function.

  • What's confusing to me is that when it's "Neither Gore nor Bush could not utter the words" then it would follow that Gore did not utter the words and Bush did not utter the words not just Gore or just Bush. – Darius Oct 2 '13 at 0:17
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    Actually, you yourself have illustrated the answer perfectly. Gore did not utter the words and Bush did not utter the words. That's exactly the same as saying neither Bush nor Gore. Nor/or treats the subjects separately, while and treats them as one whole unit. If you were to say I'm either going to the movies on Sunday or Wednesday, are you going on one day or both? That's the difference between or/nor and and. This is being very nit-picky, but if you were told that themselves is incorrect, that is the reason. – Giambattista Oct 2 '13 at 0:24
  • @Darius: Moreover, your sentence in quotation marks does not make sense logically; it has too many negatives: neither, nor, and not! I get a headache thinking of what your sentence means as it stands! – rhetorician Oct 2 '13 at 18:30
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I would say that both are correct, and the meaning is identical but for emphasis ("himself" being slightly more emphatic), but I am way the heck over on the "singular/number-ambiguous they: YES" end of that particular argument.

  • While I agree with you that most would consider both to be correct, strictly speaking, the subject is singular. – Giambattista Oct 2 '13 at 0:06

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