Grammar

Themself or Themselves: When To Use Each

When to use themself or themselves is one tricky problem in standard English, even for native English speakers. An...

Matthew Hamel Written by Matthew Hamel · 2 min read >
themself or themselves

When to use themself or themselves is one tricky problem in standard English, even for native English speakers. An English dictionary is one way to see an example of when to use the singular word themself or the plural word themselves, but a dictionary is not something a person has available all the time.

When to use themselves

First, themselves is a reflexive pronoun and is related to the plural forms of the pronouns them and they. We may use the two terms interchangeably, but they are not one and the same in English. A reflexive pronoun refers back to the subject of a sentence and all reflexive pronouns end in -self or -selves.

There are many examples of how to properly use themselves. For example:

  • I helped the girls with the word game and told them to play themselves after I left.
  • They were leaning over the edge and trying to see then movie screen for themselves.
  • The two girls next to her had dirtied themselves and the surrounding tables and chairs.
  • They were ready to defend themselves, if the bullies decided to attack them at the park during recess.
  • Children will learn themselves with the appropriate guidance..
  • They praised themselves by praising the school.
  • Pictures from the movie kept replaying themselves in her head.
  • The pilots strapped themselves in for the long ride to the space station.
  • The economies themselves will see a rebound once the national emergency is over and countries once again open up for trade and travel.
  • Once they arrived in the countryside they started to feel more like themselves.  
  • When recycling centers run themselves the world will be a better place for all of us to live in and enjoy.
  • The campers found themselves lost in the forest with no hope of rescue until after the long holiday weekend.
  • The students themselves were surprised to see the results of the exam and the rankings that followed.
  • The animals themselves figured out how to open the gate and they escaped down the road leading away from the farm.
  • Politicians themselves sometimes have a difficult time explaining complex policies and ideas to voters.
  • We can understand why people themselves are willing to wait so long for a superior product and customer service experience.

Sometimes, in modern English, them or they is used when talking about a person whose gender is not known or who is gender neutral. This can occur if the speaker or writer doesn’t know the gender of the person, animal or thing that is being discussed.

If your coworker is causing you problems, you should report them to the boss.

My dog is always running away, but I don’t know what’s wrong with them.    

My friend is always borrowing my things and not returning them, so I think I won’t lend things to them anymore.             

The delivery person is always here so fast I always give them an extra tip.   

Is themself a word?

The singular pronoun themself has become a common word to make the plural pronouns them and they sound singular. For example, see how themself is used in the following sentences.

A person should help themself before helping others.

The adults began crying at themself.

Everyone who guessed the correct word can congratulate themself.

The performer introduced themself to the audience.

The kids who know how to swim can dive in themself.

Anyone can do it themself with the right tools.

One must understand themself before understanding others.

However, if you wrote the above sentence the grammar would be incorrect because it is singular and should be plural. Written, the sentence should say the pronoun form themselves rather than the reflexive singular pronoun form themself.

Other English forms like themself, themselve, theirselves, theirself, and other third person pronouns are sometimes acceptable in English depending on how they are used and who the someone is.

Some clarifications on related questions

Is his or herself correct?

Both his or her and himself or herself are correct. However, himself and herself are considered more formal.

Is anyone singular or plural?

Anyone is always singular. For example, you would say, “Is this anyone’s car?”

Can you say they themselves?

It is acceptable to say they themselves, but it is considered wordy and lacks concision and can be shortened to just they.

Written by Matthew Hamel
Matt has spent over a decade in international and ESL education both as a teacher and instructional designer. In addition to classroom and online teaching experience, Matt has written hundreds of lessons and articles about English with an emphasis on ESL learners. Profile