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When asking a question using a reflexive pronoun which pronoun should be used?

My - and I imagine your - instinct is to use a gender neutral pronoun such as themselves or even more traditionally himself. However, while this makes sense and is certainly idiomatic, since the reflexive pronoun should always match its subject, and as the subject is who, why do we not use 'whomself'?

This question was asked a decade ago on a different forum where respondents dismissed it as a mishearing and that:

Perhaps it was meant to be himself not whomself?

Whomself could be used in any reflexive sentence where some ill-fitting neutral pronoun sits now, for example:

Who threw whomself at them

At the moment, this is said

Who threw themselves at them

Which mixes them and themselves and is altogether less clear than using whomself

Why is this imaginary pronoun not used, for it would fit a gap in the language, even if that gap has not been noticed by the majority of people?

I am also curious as to whether any other languages who use such reflexive formations include a 'who' pronoun along the vein of whomself, are there any?

  • @suməlic Well if I said that I killed themselves no one would understand me. Surely the way reflexives are formed means that they have to match. – BladorthinTheGrey Aug 27 '16 at 21:24
  • Who threw whom? Who threw him? Who threw himself? There's no ambiguity. – Peter Shor Aug 27 '16 at 21:24
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    We don't say John threw Johnself. Why should we say Who threw whomself? – Peter Shor Aug 27 '16 at 21:27
  • @PeterShor I take your point but him is inherited from John's gender the appropriate reflexive pronoun with it, with who you don't know the gender. So we do say John threw himself – BladorthinTheGrey Aug 27 '16 at 21:27
  • So use the gender-neutral reflexive pronoun themself or themselves. – Peter Shor Aug 27 '16 at 21:27
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English doesn't work that way. Who takes himself/herself/themself/themselves as the reflexive pronoun.

If you insist on inventing a new pronoun whomself, how would you say

Who left their glasses on my desk?

If you say

Who left whose glasses on my desk?

then you're implying that the glasses were left by somebody other than their owner. So you would have to say

Who left whomself's glasses on my desk?

which is ridiculous.

And if you allow

Who left their glasses on my desk,

why not allow

Who threw themself at them?

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    Good counter-example Peter, I'm not sure I can really provide any counter to it and my logic rather falls apart. Thank you very much. – BladorthinTheGrey Aug 27 '16 at 21:36
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Your generalization that "the reflexive pronoun should always match its subject" is faulty. There are different types of pronouns, and not all pronouns take matching reflexive pronouns. The personal pronouns all have corresponding reflexive pronouns. But the indefinite pronouns somebody and someone don't take "somebodyself" or "someoneself" as their reflexive pronouns; they take third-person reflexive pronouns like himself, herself, or themselves/themself.

The indefinite pronoun one often takes oneself as the reflexive pronoun, but you can also find examples of the third-person pronoun himself (mentioned in Fowler).

And as you've described, interrogative pronouns also take third-person reflexive pronouns.

  • Another way of saying more or less the same thing: English has only one set of reflexive pronouns, which is himself/herself/itself/oneself/themself/themselves in the third person. When a reflexive pronoun is required, all third-person pronouns default back to whichever form in this set is the best fit, semantically, for the pronoun in question. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 27 '16 at 22:39
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The long-standing English usage is to use "themself" in this situation. the use of "they" and "them" (and corresponding genitive and reflexive forms) as third person singular indefinite personal pronouns dates from the Middle English of the 14th century (or possibly from earlier) and continued to be the norm even after the mid-18th and early 19th century invention of nonsensical new grammatical rules (such as no splitting of infinitives) had prescriptivist pedants insisting that only "he" and "him" (and "himself" and "his") were acceptable as indefinite third person singluar pronouns. The silly pedantic nonsense didn't have much effect on usage and most of the respected writers of English in the 19th century (for example Austen, Byron, Defoe, Paley, Ruskin, Thackeray) used "they" rather than "he", and it continued to be generally accepted that this was the normal usage of the majority of English speakers (despite the 1850 act of parliament declaring that "he" was gender-neutral).
By the late 20th century it was genrally recognised that "they" was standard correct English as an indeterminate singular third person pronoun, although there are still some (very few) people (eg H.D.R Clinton, an American politician and former First Lady) who will use "he" instead, and an even smaller number of people who claim that the vast majority of English speakers are just plain wrong in their usage. the only reasonable conculsion is that the appropriate reflexive indeterminate third person singular pronoun in standard (as opposed to minority) English usage is "themself" (but not "themselves", which is plural).

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    All those authors used they, he, and maybe even she, depending on the assumed gender of the who person. They didn't just use they. Jane Austen: And who was this uncle? Where did he live? ... – Peter Shor Aug 27 '16 at 23:15
  • Hi Michealt, welcome to English Language & Usage. This is a comprehensive response, but without any supporting evidence it might be viewed as merely opinion, which undermines EL&U's aim to build "a library of detailed answers to every question about English language and usage." Are you able to add any references or links? – Chappo Aug 28 '16 at 4:42

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