The customer can serve herself, and then pay for the goods with the minimum of delay.

In the sentence, the customer can be a male or female. But the pronoun 'herself' has been used. I'm confused with the use of 'herself'. Please explain it to me.


2 Answers 2


We don't have widely-adopted gender neutral singular pronouns. The authors are trying to avoid using himself to describe both genders, and so use herself. This is quite a common practice. Other possibilities might be to say himself or herself, or customers can serve themselves.

See this reference for plenty of detail

  • 12
    I'm not sure it's a "common practice", but it is seen increasingly. A shame that it's just as sexist as the term it purports to fix. The "themselves" suggestion is great. Sep 19, 2016 at 16:48
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    According to wikipedia some writers alternate male and female pronouns too - can't say I've ever seen that in practice.
    – djna
    Sep 19, 2016 at 17:22
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    @djna I have seen it done. An example: amazon.com/Baby-Book-Revised-Everything-About-ebook/dp/…
    – Kevin
    Sep 19, 2016 at 18:36
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    @DanBarron: It depends on the person. I know some who just use it as a "default", as a sort of protest against a perceived "default" of male pronouns in common chatter. Sep 19, 2016 at 20:01
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    @P.E.Dant they has been singular in spoken English for six hundred years, so any forcing happened a long time ago. Though in this case it might simply be that the writer assumed that it's women who do most of the shopping. Sep 20, 2016 at 7:58

The gender-neutral pronoun is they / them (nominative / accusative), but things get a little confused with the reflexive form because not everyone is entirely happy with themself (they want to stick with themselves even in contexts where the referent is obviously singular).

To illustrate this, consider the "reflexive singular" context anyone can find themselves, which gets 343 hits in Google Books. The more "logical" anyone can find themself gets only 2 hits.

In short, unless he wants to rely on the (somewhat outdated) principle that he / himself can validly be used with no specific implication of gender, OP can "correctly" use either of themself / themselves.

But it's always going to be a bit awkward, and some people might object to the specific choice (or even simply object to "singular they" on principle). So many people would simply rephrase so they don't need to make any such choice (Self-service allows the customer to pay for the goods with the minimum of delay, for example).

  • 1
    Use of "singular they" often results in a muddle of singular and plural. It is often possible to recast the sentence to a straight plural, like here one could say, "Customers can serve themselves ..." etc. But making a statement plural can also change the meaning, e.g. indicating that people are doing something as a group when the intent was to say that they are acting individually, etc.
    – Jay
    Sep 19, 2016 at 15:40

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