I saw a video this morning entitled “Cute Dog Walks Themselves” (it’s a Sunday, I’m not busy). As is probably the case for you, the title seemed a little strange.

Dog, singular.

Themselves, plural.

The two shouldn’t really go together, should they?

Now of course you can use they and them to refer to an unknown, singular, individual (I feel like I’ve written about this before, but I can’t find it). Imagine, for example, Lieutenant Columbo were investigating a murder and didn’t know yet who’d done it (or at least he did, but was still pretending he didn’t). He might say something like Whoever did this, they knew what they were doing.

I know some people don’t like using they in a singular sense, but for me it makes sense. The other option would be to assume the person’s gender and say he or she, or else, say he, she, or it knew what he, she, or it were doing. Which obviously would be very awkward. They is therefore very useful here to concisely refer to an unknown individual.

And it doesn’t look very much like an obviously plural word. Themselves, though, the reflexive pronoun equivalent of they, is undeniably plural, what with that S at the end. And that’s why the title of the video sounds odd.

It made sense for the person uploading the video to think of the dog as they, because presumably they (the uploader) don’t know the dog’s sex. But then they had to refer to dog walking… themselves (I should explain that the dog was holding the end of their lead in their mouth, in case you were wondering about the logistics). And the obviously plural nature of the word made it sound weird.

So what other options could there be? There’s obviously itself, but the tone would be different. The uploader was thinking of the dog in an affectionate way, so using itself would be too impersonal.

So I propose themself, as a logical companion to the singular they.  I’m not alone in this by the way, as it’s becoming increasingly popular. What do you think? It makes sense to me as a pretty natural evolution of the language, and then we’ll be able to upload all the videos of cute puppies we want, without worrying about the grammar of it all.

4 thoughts on “Themself

  1. A very interesting article! You’ve caught my attention, since I read a news item recently where a young woman was referred to as “they.” As in, “They” won the grand prize—a new car —and the timing is great because their old car was about shot. I thought “they” were a couple, but then read, “They” are planning to take a trip with their girlfriend…” Which definitely confused the reader’s picture! “Ms Smith plans to take a holiday with her…” would have been a lot clearer.

    As to animals, I’d say rather than getting into “themself,” let’s go back to “itself.” The dog won’t care. “Then we’ll be able to upload all the videos of cute puppies we want, without worrying about the grammar of it all.” If the uploader(s) of the video wanted to treat the dog “in a more personal way,” they should know its sex.

    I’m not very willing to change the language for a current wave of thought, especially when I see evidence that the pendulum is swinging back again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ll generally use it(self) for animals, though I can’t help but anthropomorphise pets! I generally don’t mind using ‘they’ to refer to a singular person, but it’s important to be careful and make sure it can’t be confused for referring to a couple, as in your example.

      Liked by 1 person

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