How would you refer to a gender neutral subject with a reflexive pronoun?

It is unbelievable how a perpetrator will cast oneself in the role of victim.

That does not seem right. Is there a better word other than "oneself"? I thought "oneself" would refer to the narrator. Here I try to refer to the subject.

Themselves: It is possible to use a 'singular they' for pronouns, but to say "themselves" surely can not be correct as a gender neutral reflexive pronoun? According to this article, it would only seem to make sense when qualified by a singular they.

Themself: "The form is not widely accepted in standard English" according to the Oxford dictionary.

It is unbelievable how they, as a perpetrator, will cast themselves in the role of victim.

I'd like to avoid making the sentence this complex.

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    I, personally, would just use themself, wide acceptance in standard English be damned.
    – nohat
    Commented Jul 21, 2011 at 18:39
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    Maybe it's an age-related thing. I don't think I particularly interpret himself here as implying the perp is a male. The fact that I do think "he" is more likely to be male is mainly because in the real world more males than females are so classified. "If person could die if he ate rat poison" implies very little about gender to me. Commented Jul 21, 2011 at 19:23
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    The Oxford Dictionary may cast aspersions upon "themself", but the Oxford English Dictionary mentions the use of both "themself" and "themselves" with singular antecedents, with no suggestion that the use is problematic. ("Themselves" is used in constructions where it is paired with things like "Every one", "themself" in constructions like yours.)
    – Henry
    Commented May 26, 2012 at 16:23
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    Everyone saying you can just substitute "him or herself" is missing the fact that some people use gender neutral pronouns. Ie.) trans* and genderqueer individuals. So...the correct pronoun to refer to someone who uses gender neutral pronouns would be neither "himself" nor "herself." And sorry...but working with "the queer community" doesn't entitle you to choose a pronoun for someone else. There are a whole lot of genders and pronouns out there. You can no more use "hir" to cover all your bases than you can use "him." It's not a cover-all-your-bases with a randomly selected pronoun kind of sit
    – user107443
    Commented Jan 26, 2015 at 2:46
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    I'm a native speaker of the UK and an English language teacher, and I have always used, and will continue to use 'themselves' and 'they' for the singular gender neutral reference: "The child can count themselves lucky they didn't cause a fire." It's fine by me, and widely used.
    – 41st
    Commented Jan 15, 2017 at 14:56

4 Answers 4


This is just another version of the he/she, him/her dilemma: English lacks singular pronouns that include both genders. I like @drm65's approach to avoiding the problem. The other likely option is to specify both:

"himself or herself"

It is unbelievable how a perpetrator will cast himself or herself in the role of victim.


"him or herself"

It is unbelievable how a perpetrator will cast him or herself in the role of victim.


Another approach is to just choose a verb that isn't reflexive:

It is unbelievable how a perpetrator will play the role of victim.

That's not always possible or best, e.g. when you're trying to emphasize exactly that reflexive aspect of the issue. But play is obviously shorter and simpler than cast him or herself in the role of, so it's worth considering unless there's a good reason to use the wordier version.

Update 2:

This question and my original answer are nearly 9 years old now, and there have been some significant changes with respect to personal pronouns in the interim. There's a greater awareness now of gender neutral and non-binary pronouns. In some contexts, a phrase like him or herself that's meant to be inclusive (compared to just himself) might be insensitive. Themself seems to be gaining acceptance even if it's not yet widely used. As the obvious singular form of the commonly used themselves, themself seems like a good choice for being inclusive while still being fairly conventional.

There are a number of other gender neutral third person reflexive pronouns such as hirself, zirself, xyrself, and coself. If you're talking about a specific person and know which pronouns they favor, use them.

Perhaps by 2029 there will be a more clear-cut answer.

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    "Himself or herself" isn't such a great option if you're trying to be inclusive towards non-binary gender identities (those who identify as a "they," not a "he" or "she"). I wouldn't use it, personally.
    – Aaa
    Commented Jan 8, 2018 at 3:46

You could circumvent the problem and avoid overcomplexity by merely pluralizing the subject:

It is unbelievable how perpetrators will cast themselves in the role of victim.

This is what I would do in this case, as neither oneself, themselves, or themself are widely endorsed here, and as there is no such thing in English as a singular gender neutral reflexive pronoun.

  • I disagree with the notion of there being such a thing as "strict" correctness-- it's just arbitrary opinion at the end of the day (practically no language has a 1-1 correspondence between its pronouns and the precise types/combinations of people they refer to-- you can probably invent spurious reasons for saying that any use of any pronoun is "incorrect" if you go down that road). But, I agree with your pragmatic solution to allay potential whingers. Commented Jul 21, 2011 at 18:57
  • +1 as the only logical alternative would be "itself" - and that probably won't fly in general usage :) Commented Jul 21, 2011 at 19:16
  • "[...]as there is no such thing in English as a singular gender neutral reflexive pronoun"... yet. Commented Jul 21, 2011 at 19:34
  • @Neil: I edited the strictness out of the answer.
    – Daniel
    Commented Jul 21, 2011 at 19:56
  • @Neil: There is such a thing as strictness, though, and that was my point.
    – Daniel
    Commented Jul 21, 2011 at 20:00

The word themself has been used for centuries in conjunction with the singular gender-neutral "they". The singular "they" fell into disrepute among prescriptive grammarians, and brought the word themself with it. Since we are now reviving the singular "they" (which was in disrepute with the prescriptive grammarians), there is no reason we shouldn't revive themself as well.


If you want to stretch the boundaries of English:

Working with the Queer Community, I've found hir [hēr] (∴hirself) to be the most intuitive/easy to assimilate neologism.


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    How do you pronounce 'hir' and 'hirself'? If it's pronounced the same as 'her' and 'herself' it would convey a feminine connotation.
    – Kalamane
    Commented Jul 21, 2011 at 21:42
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    @James it's pronounced with the e from he: ē. Very similar to hear or here, but with emphasis on the vowel.
    – Shad
    Commented Jul 21, 2011 at 23:52
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    @Shad: It's hard enough introducing a new pronoun; introducing a new sound with it that most Americans can't pronounce is clearly a bad idea. Please just tell people it's pronounced here-self. Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 17:02

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