31

We have a highly regarded answer by nohat to a question about gender-neutral pronouns, in which he points to the "singular they" and its long history of use in English. (Note that he also advises against using it.) Example:

If someone wants to watch TV tonight, they'll have to do the dishes.

This avoids having to say "he or she" in mixed-gender situations. Okay, fine. I'm not going to get my panties in a bunch if people want to talk this way.

But it occurrs to me that "singular they"—infelicitous at the best of times—really falls apart when extended into the realm of reflexive pronouns:

If someone wants to watch TV tonight, they'll have to do the dishes all by themselves. [?]

That feels very wrong. The only alternative, if one paints oneself into that corner, is to flip it back to singular:

If someone wants to watch TV tonight, they'll have to do the dishes all by themself. [???]

That feels worse.

If I'm to state this as a question, I guess I would put it thus: How can use of a "singular they" truly be reconciled? Is it really as much of a linguistic dead end as it feels to me?

  • 8
    I've used "themself" before in that situation; it does feel a bit strange. But I'm entirely comfortable using "themselves" for the singular. – Matt Gutting Dec 24 '14 at 2:23
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    The OED has citations for the word "themself" from 1382. It presumably dropped in frequency when grammarians started denigrating singular "they", but now that singular "they" has been rehabilitated, there is no reason not to use "themself". The similar word "ourself" is a perfectly good pronoun. – Peter Shor Dec 24 '14 at 2:27
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    @Cerberus awkward is in the ear of the beholder. – Matt Gutting Dec 24 '14 at 2:38
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    @Cerberus: singular they and the corresponding reflexive pronoun themself have been used in English since the 14th century. Sometime one or two centuries ago, grammarians started discouraging its use, leaving a hole in the English language. (Although some people kept using it; I grew up using it, despite teachers saying that it was incorrect.) With the birth of feminism, people started looking for a singular gender-neutral pronoun to fill this hole. The current consensus is that the best candidate to fill this hole is "they". – Peter Shor Dec 24 '14 at 2:40
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    Singular you takes yourself while plural you takes yourselves. Use the same model. And magisterial we? Hm, ourself? :-) – tchrist Dec 24 '14 at 3:49
19

“Themself”

enter image description here

Themself was used in the past, and there is no law or authority that prohibits anyone from using it today. I have used it in personal correspondence, conscious of its rebellious and contradictory nature; however, I have to confess many of my correspondents are in the field of language teaching, and they tend to be more open-minded.

Although the singular themself is gaining currency, it would be an arduous challenge for anyone to produce a recent government bill, act, tax form, or any official English document that contains the actual reflexive pronoun. And if they could produce a formal document, it would be akin to seeing an exotic and engendered butterfly in the wild.

It's simply not done; not today, not in a formal context simply because it looks “wrong”. Themself looks dialectal, a word that an uneducated native speaker person might use. While the singular they, their and them are extremely common in speech—and increasingly so in writing as it avoids having to write the cumbersome he or she; his or her; him or her—yet many English native speakers consider themself not a “proper word”, and whenever instances of ourself and themself appear in writing, these words stick out like a sore thumb.


Those in favour of “themself”

Pam Peters in ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’ advocates:

The singular reference in ‘themself’ obviously serves a purpose, especially after an indefinite noun or pronoun. If we allow the use of ‘they’/’them’/’their’ for referring to the singular, ‘themself’ seems more consistent than ‘themselves‘. We make use of ”yourself‘ alongside ‘yourselves’ in just the same way. ‘Themself’ has the additional advantage of being gender-free, and thus preferable to both ‘himself’ and ‘himself/herself‘. It’s time to reinstate it to the set of reflexive pronouns!

Those against …

From an article in Language Log, March 08, 2007, two American English authorities condemn the use of themself

  1. As MWDEU (Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage) 1989 puts it (p. 898):

This use of themself is similar to the use of they, their, and them in reference to singular terms... Such use of they, their, and them is old and well established, but this use is not.

  1. Wilson's Columbia Guide (1993) is stern on the matter (p. 435):

Theirselves and themself for themselves are limited to Vulgar English or imitations of it; both are shibboleths.

adding that

Themself can also occur as an unfortunate result of trying to avoid using a gender-explicit reflexive pronoun by using a blend of the plural them with the singular self. The choices are themselves or himself or herself or both the last two...

Themselves

An Ngram showing themself tells us that it existed and exists. An Ngram that compares themself and themselves reflects its usage more accurately.

enter image description here

Him(self) or herself

An Ngram that compares themself (blue line); himself or herself (red line); him or herself (green) and herself and himself (yellow) tells us that the majority of writers (and editors) feel more comfortable using a longer equivalent than the succinct themself.

enter image description here

On Google Books, the politically-correct expression, "herself or himself", produces around 1,480 results. Here are some examples:

The differentiation between self and not-self certainly seems related to the growth of the object concept, during which the child learns to see herself or himself as an object in space and time, separate from the mother.
Research Manual in Child Development 2003

1963, Standard Civil Code of the State of California

the case may be, for the permanent support and maintenance of [3] herself or himself, and may include therein at her or his discretion an action for support, maintenance and education of the children of said marriage during their minority.

and as recently as 2009, Code of Federal Regulations

(a) An ALJ [Administrative Law Judge] may disqualify herself or himself at any time. (b) Until the filing of the ALJ's decision. either party may move that the ALJ disqualify herself or himself for personal bias or other valid cause. The party shall file with the ALJ, promptly ..


Whereas himself or herself gets 8,190 hits

George Herbert Mead and Human Conduct, 2004

He sees it, in the first instance, as being merely the object that the individual is to himself or herself. Obviously, human beings can, and do, think of themselves as being a given kind of object. The human being may see himself or herself as male or female, young or old, rich or poor, married or unmarried …

Interestingly, the authors use the impersonal pronouns it and itself when referring to babies and small infants on page 58.

The human infant or very young child is not an object to itself. While in the eyes of others it acts as a baby, it doesn't recognize itself as a baby. It doesn't see itself as someone who is helpless, gets sick, cries a lot, spends a lot of time sleeping, ...

In a formal or technical register, himself or herself, will usually be preferred. And it seems highly unlikely that it will change in the near future.

Criminal Law, 2010, page 357

Section 2 Any person who
(a) Purposely engages in a course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to fear bodily injury to himself or herself or a member of his or her immediate family or to fear the death of himself or herself or a member of his or her immediate family; and
(b) Has knowledge or should have knowledge that the specific person will be placed in reasonable fear of bodily injury to himself or herself or a member of his or her immediate family or induce fear in the specific individual of the death of himself or herself or a member of his or her immediate family; is guilty of stalking.


And those sitting on the fence

In 2013, Catherine Soanes, guest blogger on OxfordWords blog, and one of the editors of the OED 2nd edition 2005, argued:

Given that it’s now largely acceptable to use they, them, or their instead of the more long-winded ‘he or she’, ‘him or her’, or ‘his or her’ (especially in conjunction with indefinite pronouns such as anyone or somebody) it might be argued that, logically, it should also be OK to use themself, it being viewed as the corresponding singular form of themselves. However, this isn’t yet the case, so beware of themself for now! The correct versions of the opening examples in this section should be:

  1. It’s not an expensive way for somebody to make themselves feel good.
  2. Anyone would find themselves thinking similar thoughts.

Of course, if you dislike the use of gender-neutral third-person plural pronouns for singular subjects, or you’re working to a style guide that prohibits them, you should reword the sentences so as to incorporate gender-specific third-person singular pronouns instead:

  1. It’s not an expensive way for somebody to make himself or herself feel good.
  2. Anyone would find himself or herself thinking similar thoughts.

[…] To sum up, the wheel has not yet come full circle and ‘themself’ remains a standard English outcast. . . for now.

If you dislike using “themself”, what can you do?

The OP's example:

If someone wants to watch TV tonight, they'll have to do the dishes all by themselves

Sound perfectly acceptable to my ears. In speech and in an informal context, it is perfectly fine. For anyone who dislikes this solution I would suggest the following:

If I am speaking to more than one person

i) For those who want to watch TV tonight, they'll have to do the dishes all by themselves

or to any individual, male or female

ii) If someone wants to watch TV tonight, he or she will have to do the dishes all by themselves

or you could try this "clunkier" version

iii) If someone wants to watch TV tonight, he or she will have to do the dishes all by him or herself

If I had to use this particular construction, for efficiency's sake, I'd choose him or herself, which is well-documented and represented by the green line in the third Ngram chart.

  • Truth to say, this is a more comprehensive and balanced analysis than mine, and I think it deserves serious consideration as a "canonical" response. – Sven Yargs Aug 20 '15 at 22:56
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    @SvenYargs: I've risen from the grave to award the checkmark to this response, notwithstanding your own fine (and already much awarded) effort. This answer strikes the real-world balance I think I was looking for. – Robusto May 12 '16 at 15:21
  • Yes, he or she, themselves sound natural, if you're not looking to formalize. I prefer to shoot myself in the feet [caveat: joke] than to use "themself". – Lambie May 10 at 17:22
23
+100

John Fortescue, The Difference Between an Absolute and Limited Monarchy (written around 1471 according to Wikipedia but published under that name in 1714) uses the word themself three times in the course of his discourse:

But afterward, whan Mankynd was more mansuete, and better disposyd to Vertue, Grete Communalties, as was the Feliship, that came into this Lond with Brute, wyllyng to be unyed and made a Body Politike callid a Realme, hvyng an Heed to governe it; as after the Saying of the Philosopher, ever Communaltie unyed of many parts must needs have an Heed; than they chose the same Brute to be their Heed and Kyng. And they and he upon this Incorporation and Institution, and onyng [uniting] of themself into a Realme, ordeynyd the same Realme so to be rulyd and justyfyd by such Lawys, as they al would assent unto ; which Law therfor is callid Politicum; and bycause it is mynystrid by a Kyng, it is callid Regale.

...

Wherefor the holy Spirites and Angels, that may not syne, wex old, but syke, or hurt themself, have more power than we that may harme our self, with al the Defawts.

...

For so the Kyng schal lese the Officers for an singular Service he schal have of them, or that the same Officers schal thynk themself beholdyng to the Kyng for their Offices, which his Highness hath gevyn them at the Contemplation and Requeste of their Masters; and for no Reward of any Service that they have done or schal do unto hymself.

An editor's footnote in the 1719 edition of this treatise explains Fortescue's use of themself:

i.e. themſelves; from the Saxon Pronoun hem-ꞅẏlꝼ, from thence comes themſelf; the plural Number in Saxon being ſylf, as well as the ſingular. Hickeſ. Gram. 32.

So we have a word themself of long standing; and we also have, in recent decades, widespread use of they to serve as a gender-neutral singular pronoun substituting for "a person." Under the circumstances—and given that the referent for the reflexive pronoun is clearly singular—I'm not at all sure why anyone would be inclined to prefer sentence 1 to sentence 2 below:

  1. Each person must figure it out for themselves.

  2. Each person must figure it out for themself.

Or even more starkly, why anyone would prefer sentence 3 to sentence 4 below:

  1. If someone paints themselves into a corner, they won't know what to do.

  2. If someone paints themself into a corner, they won't know what to do.

It's as though, having grudgingly relinquished he, him, and his in favor of they, them, and their as the default pronouns associated with "a [generic] person," the person making the concession has insisted "but you have to replace himself with themselves, too, for consistency." I see no reason to accept that proviso.


A related issue arises in the context of the royal reflexive pronoun. A letter from King James I to the Earl of Bristol, dated October 8, 1623, in Journals of the House of Lords, volume 3 adopts ourself (or rather, Ourself) as the reflexive pronoun:

We have received your's [that is, your letter], brought us by Greysly; and the Copy of your's to Our dear Son; and We cannot forbear to let you know, how well We esteem your dutiful, discreet, and judicious Relation and humble Advice to Ourself and Our son; whereupon, having ripely deliberated with Ourself, and communicated with Our dear Son, We have resolved, with the great Liking of Our Son, to rest upon that Security, and in Point of Doubt of the Infanta's taking a religious Order, which you, in your Judgement shall think meet.

To similar effect, William Tidd, Practical Forms, and Entries of Proceedings: In the Courts of Queen's Bench, Common Pleas, and Exchequer of Pleas, eighth edition (1840) has this form for a writ of replevin (among many other writs similarly formulated):

Victoria, &c. (351.) To the sheriff of ————, greeting: We command you, that justly and without delay you cause to be replevied to A. B. his cattle goods and chattels, which C. D. took and unjustly detains, as it is said; and afterwards cause him to be justly remedied in this behalf, that we may no longer hear any clamour thereupon, for want of justice. Witness ourself at Westminster, the ———— day of ————, in the ———— year of our reign.

And just as King James and Queen Victoria very reasonably distinguish between the group we that yields ourselves and the royal we that yields ourself when used reflexively, it seems to me that writers and speakers ought to be able to distinguish between a group they that yields themselves and a singular they that yields themself when used reflexively. In acknowledgment of the "royal we," we could call it the "commoner they."

  • Out of curiosity, how often do you use the term themself yourself? Judging from your answer, it seems you are a strong supporter, and yet, I haven't found a single instance in any of your answers posted. Whereas I have seen John Lawler using themself on more than one occasion. – Mari-Lou A Aug 20 '15 at 21:14
  • @Mari-LouA: I wouldn't use themself or themselves as a reflexive singular pronoun in writing unless absolutely forced to it—and I can't recall that that has ever happened. Speech, though, is a whole nother ballgame. Here in California I have occasionally heard themself used in the way I discuss in my answer—and in some specific instances (such as the two that I cite as examples above) it sounds more natural and less self-consciously stilted to me than themselves used singularly. ... – Sven Yargs Aug 20 '15 at 21:29
  • ... English embraced the nonsexist singular they as a standard form relatively recently, and I don't consider the reflexive form settled yet as a point of standard usage. As I say in my answer, I would prefer to see themself win out as the singular reflexive form—but in my writing I intend to avoid both alternatives. That's because I firmly believe that writing effectively is to some extent a matter of avoiding distracting formulations (like "whole nother") so that as much of the reader's attention as possible is directed to the writer's argument rather than to his or her word choice. – Sven Yargs Aug 20 '15 at 21:35
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    @SvenYargs I've added the special characters you were wanting to the editor's footnote. – MetaEd Jul 13 '16 at 17:28
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    It does look correct, both in the post and in your comment. I'd say your device does not have a font with those characters in it. – MetaEd Jul 13 '16 at 20:44
7

Although the form themself sounds utterly barbarous to many anglophone ears including mine, OED indeed lists it, with examples of the relevant usage ranging from the fifteenth century (four examples) to 2007:

  1. In anaphoric reference to a singular pronoun or noun of undetermined gender or where the meaning implies more than one: himself or herself. Cf. they pron. 2, them pron. 4.

Ngram also shows that the form is not exclusively a recent one. Those who think of singular they as a barbarism attributable to second-wave feminism might find some seeming confirmation in the fairly steady rise in frequency since circa 1960, but the frequency peak of 1819 remains unmatched since.

3

The popular practice now is to allow people to choose their pronouns.

There are a vast array of options available: http://askanonbinary.tumblr.com/pronouns

The problem here is that in English, pronouns are largely considered a closed class.

In linguistics, a closed class (or closed word class) is a word class to which new items are rarely and with difficulty added, and that usually contains a relatively small number of items ... Different languages have different word classes as open class and closed class – for example, in English, pronouns are closed class and verbs are open class...

We have a largely static vernacular attempting to reflect a fairly revolutionized way of thinking.

To answer your question - yes, it is just as much a dead end as you feel it to be. If you personally are having trouble with someone that you want to refer to with pronouns, I recommend discovering by which pronouns that person wishes to be referred to. May auto-correct have mercy on you.


In the case of a generic reference to someone of undetermined gender, rather than someone explicitly identifying as non-gender-binary, I am aware of two options outside of 'singular they.'

'One; oneself' refers adequately to a non-specific sentient being. 'This/that person' is also an acceptable reference, but leads back to a singular 'they' case when substituted once more.

If pronouns are a problem, sticking to the noun you would be replacing is also always an option.

  • By the way, I don't mean to endorse the entirety of the pronouns offered in that Tumblr link. Language is a medium for communication. When the medium doesn't suit its purpose, you expand it. Until the standards-making entities catch up to our need to express these ideas, I believe it is much more appropriate to tolerate free expression than to enforce an outdated standard. – Coty Johnathan Saxman Dec 24 '14 at 7:10
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    I'm not advocating against free expression, and I understand you are not trying to certify that Tumblr link's entire catalogue, but if your point is that language is "a medium for communication" I wonder how a bunch of made-up pronouns could possibly communicate except to other aficionados of those abstruse coinages? – Robusto Dec 24 '14 at 14:49
  • @Robusto The idea is that in such cases you agree on pronouns when you begin conversation with someone in that group. Language is a social arrangement. If, for example, you were to engage in philosophical debates, you'd have to agree on a number of definitions in order to ensure you're communicating on common ground; English words that don't quite fit are leveraged into new meanings. These pronouns are much the same. You agree that existing words are insufficient, and you agree which words you will use as placeholders. – Coty Johnathan Saxman Dec 25 '14 at 1:11
  • 3
    This doesn't actually address the question - all you discuss are alternatives to the singular/generic they, not its reflexive. – curiousdannii Aug 18 '15 at 8:16
2

It is, presently, a grammatical dead end when followed narrowly, but there are sometimes ways out if you look far enough out to the sides.

Using "one" or "that person" as a reference to what the pronoun is replacing can be effective and grammatical.

In your question, the bolded phrase ("all by themself/themselves") could be more concisely replaced by an adjective like "alone" that does not require a pronoun.

If someone wants to watch TV tonight, that person will have to do the dishes alone.

When written (e.g. in dialogue), this may strike a stronger and/or more formal tone than intended in an informal setting, but it does seem to resolve the grammatical challenge.

2

Here's your questions:

How can use of a "singular they" truly be reconciled? Is it really as much of a linguistic dead end as it feels to me?

The questions themselves clearly assume the absurdity of "themself" and rightly so, despite the past trace of its usage, which, in and of itself, does not really mean anything about its current usage, for its historical usage is a non-issue here. The only issue is its current usage.

This irreconcilability that's mentioned in the OP, it seems to me, emanates from the apparently illogical naming of the usage "they" as "singular they". Before attacking the fallacy of this naming, let me use the OP's example sentence and tweak it a little:

If someone wants to watch TV tonight, they have to do the dishes.

Here, they is used to refer to someone, instead of the more cumbersome "he or she", and thus it's called "singular they". But if they were really singular, how come you use the plural verb have instead of the singular has? So if we are to determine whether they here is singular or plural, I'd say it's as plural as can be.

It's just that this "plural they" can be used to refer to a singular antecedent someone. Does that automatically make it singular? THAT I don't know. Please someone let me know if there's such a rule in English.

Unless and until someone finds me such a rule, I think it'd be better to call it "neutral they" if you had to have a name for it. And yes, "they" is already neutral before we call it "neutral they", so what I'm saying is that we're just using the same "they" in order to avoid all the controversy over political correctness and at the same time to stay away from the cumbersome "he or she".

I bet this answers the OP's question regarding whether to use "themselves" as in:

If someone wants to watch TV tonight, they have to do the dishes all by themselves.

ANSWER

And the answer, if you have yet to get it, is that, insofar as you readily accept the plural verb have, you should be able to have little difficulty accepting the plural reflexive pronoun themselves.

PS

As for the argument that some people accept the form "themself" and that we should be able to use "themself" as a singular counterpart of "themselves" as we use "yourself" as a singular counterpart of "yourselves", if your dialect already accepts "themself" as a correct form, I guess you can use it as you have been all along.

But if your dialect doesn't accept it as of yet, "themself" will sound awkward to you no matter how persuasive you find the argument for using it, because you can't just change language usage overnight just because it's more logical. It takes time for the usage to spread and be accepted by the majority of your dialect. Until that day comes, you'll have to stick to "themselves".

  • How does a particular usage spread and become accepted without being used? Chicken and egg, perhaps; but if you stick to themselves then the day will never come! – Andrew Leach Aug 19 '15 at 10:18
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    @Andrew Leach: You may be right about that, but that doesn't automatically allow you to go around and misuse 'themself' whenever and wherever you will. The OP's question was not about the original poster being willing to be a pioneer or something but about whether it's appropriate to use 'themself' in a dialect where it's not yet accepted as natural. – JK2 Aug 19 '15 at 10:33
  • @AndrewLeach How many times have you yourself written the term, yourself, in any of the 1,062 answers you posted? I think there is a lot of hypocrisy on this website, and I'd suggest that users who positively advocate the use of "themself" begin using it themselves, otherwise the day when "themself" will be fully acceptable will never come. – Mari-Lou A Aug 21 '15 at 12:13
  • The pronoun you also takes "plural" verb agreement when it is used to refer to a single person, but we still use yourself in this context ("you have to do the dishes all by yourself"). – sumelic Nov 3 '18 at 7:12
0

What's the deal with reflexive pronouns? They have to match the noun that is doing the action to itself. "He is washing herself" doesn't work because "herself" can only be used when the relevant preceding noun denotes a female. That's an easy case. "Themselves" is interesting because, before it was used as a gender-neutral singular reflexive pronoun, it was the reflexive pronoun for plural nouns (or noun phrases like "Bob and Bob").

It has been awhile since I've read the relevant work in semantics, but pronouns and other deictic words have both a fixed linguistic meaning and a contextually-dependent part (which is actually determined by the fixed linguistic meaning). For example, when I wrote "since I've read ..." the word "I" means (and always means) [insert the producer of the utterance], an insertion will change from context to context. When "they" started moonlighting as a singular pronoun, it got a second fixed linguistic meaning. The issue with "themselves" is, I suspect, merely one of being uttered less frequently than "they" as a singular pronoun. Because of that, it's lagging behind. Soon enough, though, it will acquire the meaning that corresponds to "they"'s new meaning. I must admit that, for me, it already has.

  • 1
    So are you saying that themselves is the right pronoun for singular they, or themself? That's the question, and this answer only implies an answer (which I think is that you favour themselves over what [from Sven's research] is hardly a neologism in themself). – Andrew Leach Aug 14 '15 at 7:41
-1

And then there's "xe"

Just to muddy the waters a little more, there's this sad story which might be relevant http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/01/magazine/the-fire-on-the-57-bus-in-oakland.html

Telling Sasha’s story also poses a linguistic challenge, because English doesn’t offer a ready-made way to talk about people who identify as neither male nor female. Sasha prefers “they,” “it” or the invented gender-neutral pronoun “xe.” The New York Times does not use these terms to refer to individuals.

  • 1
    This answer doesn't touch on reflexive pronouns, though, although a reflexive pronoun for xe (if there is one) might be relevant. The question is about the reflexive pronoun for singular they. – Andrew Leach Aug 19 '15 at 10:21
-3

I do agree that it's a dead end. Alternatives for your particular example:

  1. He who wishes to watch TV tonight, must do the dishes all by himself.
  2. (Variant of #1) Anyone wishing to watch TV tonight must do the dishes all by himself.
  3. If anyone wants to watch TV tonight, you'll have to do the dishes all by yourself / yourselves (depending on how many people are being addressed).

Note, #1 and #2 work just fine in languages where everything has a gender, such as Spanish. So I don't see why we can't do it in English.

  • Why are women exempt? In sentence 1. it definitely sounds like a) there are only men present, or, b) a woman is talking to a group of men, or c) for whatever reason, the women in the house are exempt from this chore. – Mari-Lou A Aug 15 '15 at 6:51
  • @Mari-LouA - No, not exempt. Inspired by what works in some other languages (for example, Spanish, el que quiera mirar la tele deberá lavar los trastes por su cuenta), where he can be used in an ungendered way, I see no reason not to do this in English more often. The Danes got rid of the formal version of "you" in one generation! I believe that "he" and "man" should be for everyone. "She's the man for the job." "She's my right-hand man." – aparente001 Aug 15 '15 at 14:53
  • Many would disagree with you, the time when the pronoun he represented both sexes is on its way out. I believe my observations on your first sentence clearly illustrates the drawbacks and limitations of using: he, his, him and himself as gender neutral. – Mari-Lou A Aug 15 '15 at 14:59
  • @Mari-LouA - Hopefully in the context it would be clear. Eye contact with those who tend to shirk dish duty would probably help the arrow meet its mark. --- Oh, I thought of a word that's become less gender-specific over time -- "guys." – aparente001 Aug 15 '15 at 17:46

protected by Mitch May 10 at 16:58

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