Self-help

Self-help

One of my favourite lines from a movie is in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, where our protagonist turns to his casino table companion and says: ‘Allow myself to introduce... myself.’

In addition to the words, I love his visible effort in working out what to say after ‘introduce’. Of course there’s no other way forward for Austin than to repeat himself with ‘myself’.

Locating subject and object

The impulse to overuse reflexive pronouns is out there. In a recent No Painer Explainer, the ever-helpful John Espirian sets out the rule for ‘myself’ (with useful graphics that I can’t reproduce here):

Use 'myself' when you're the subject and the object: ‘I looked at myself.’ If someone or something else is the subject and you're the object, use 'me': ‘Tony gave the Pringles to me.’ Don't use 'myself' to sound formal.

Pringles, mmmm. What was I saying? Oh yes – John’s explainer is useful in two main ways. Firstly, it neatly captures the issue for Austin Powers – he treated what should have been the subject (‘me’) as the object. This applies to any sort of reflexive pronoun – it comes into play when the subject is also the object, and this –self or –selves word should be used to refer to the object only.

Secondly, John makes the point that people often use ‘myself’ to ‘sound formal’. This certainly applies to Austin Powers, and may also be behind the overuse of ‘yourself’, of which there seemed to be a proliferation among call handlers about a decade ago: ‘Can I talk to yourself about PPI today?’ In terms of where it might come from, people say ‘Your Honour’ to a judge, ‘Your Grace’ to an archbishop, ‘Your Royal Highness’ to the queen precisely to avoid saying ‘you’. Perhaps the everyday use of ‘yourself’ for ‘you’ in sales teams is a trickle-down of this – after all, the customer is king.

Reflexive pronouns – how many?

But there are more reflexive pronouns than just ‘myself’ and ‘yourself’. The Oxford A–Z of Grammar and Punctuation, edited by John Seely, lists nine: ‘myself, ourselves, yourself, yourselves, himself, herself, itself, oneself, themselves.’ David Marsh, in For Who the Bell Tolls, adds ‘a few variations such as the dialect thi’sen, the biblical “heal thyself” and the “royal we” ourself.’

Recently I was copy-editing a book that had been through more than ten editions. Its original plan was to alternate by chapter the gender of pronouns: in Chapter 1 ‘if a person sold her car ...’, in Chapter 2 ‘he would be breaking the law if ...’, and so on. However, with the addition of new chapters this system was starting to fall apart, so the author and I decided to use the singular ‘they’ throughout. It was going swimmingly, until I got to ‘himself’.

The only option, according to the lists in Seely and Marsh, would have been to replace ‘himself’ with ‘themselves’. But if we want it to be obvious that we are talking about one person, ‘themselves’ doesn’t always offer enough clarity. For example,

The killer-survivor will keep the property for themselves

could give the impression that the killer and survivor are two people. If they went back and reviewed the context the reader would conclude that it is one person, but as our aim is to lessen the reader’s burden this is hardly satisfactory.

The other issue is the jarring effect of an apparent lack of agreement between the subject and object. The subject is singular; the object seems to be plural. For example,

a person cannot have rights against themselves

raises in the reader a sense of dissonance they could do without when there is already enough to concentrate on in the meaning.

Introducing themself

After riffling through the entirety of my reference shelf to find a solution to this conundrum, the most recent, 17th, edition of the Chicago Manual of Style (at 5.48) offered a development:

[T]hemself (like yourself) may be used to signal the singular antecedent (though some people will prefer themselves).

This comparison of ‘themself’ and ‘yourself’ is useful. Perhaps Her Majesty’s ‘ourself’ falls into the same category.

Going online, I found ‘Themself is a Perfectly Cromulent Word’ (at consciousstyleguide.com), in which editor, trainer, columnist and SfEP APM Sarah Grey argues ‘there’s no question’ that we need ‘themself’, not only to show the proper respect to people who want to use a gender-nonbinary pronoun but also for clarity. Citing instances of its use since the 15th century, Grey describes CMOS’s new rule about ‘themself’ as the word’s overdue ‘mark of acceptance into formal English’.

So I allowed myself to introduce ‘themself’ into the text. And, yes, it looked better, and seemed clearer. But I did let the author and proofreader know I’d done it, and why.

‘Advances in language help us envisage other ways of being’, Grey concludes. It’s a vision that Carol Saller, former editor of the CMOS’s online Q&A section, echoes in her recent Times Literary Supplement review of Lane Greene’s Talk on the Wild Side, a book which depicts language as untameable, ‘a wild animal like a wolf, well adapted for its conditions and needs’. Saller writes that Greene’s anti-stickler view is ‘a tolerant and humane view of language that will unite, not divide’. Using language to move closer to each other? As Austin Powers might say, ‘Yeah, baby, yeah!’

First published as an article in the March/April 2019 issue of Editing Matters, the magazine of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders.

Credit: Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

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