I am wondering which following form is correct:

  • Anyone can find the answer himself.
  • Anyone can find the answer themselves.

More generally, what reflexive pronoun should I use with anyone/anybody?


Almost all English speakers and writers use "themselves."

This question was studied in 2009 by Collins Dictionaries for the Committee on Bible Translation. The conclusion is that the plural generic is almost universal and increasing, against masculine generic and other alternatives.


1. Generic pronouns and determiners

This part of the study considered the types of pronouns and determiners that are used to refer to indefinite pronouns (such as someone, everybody and one) and non-gender specific nouns (such as a person, each child and any teacher):

A. masculine (he, his, himself, etc.); B. feminine (she, her, herself, etc.); C. plural/gender-neutral (they, them, one, themselves, etc.); D. alternative forms (s/he, him or her, his/her, etc.)

In all the varieties of English analyzed, plural/neutral pronouns and determiners account for the majority of usages. Between 1990 and 2009, instances of masculine generic pronouns and determiners, expressed as a percentage of total generic pronoun usage in general written English, fell from 22% to 8%.

e.g. ‘…when a person accepts unconditional responsibility, he denies himself the privilege of “complaining” and “finding faults.”’

Instances of ‘alternative’ generic pronouns and determiners fell from 12% to 8%.

e.g. ‘Any citizen who wants to educate himself or herself has plenty of sources from which to do so.’

Instances of plural/neutral generic pronouns and determiners rose from 65% to 84%.

e.g. ‘If you can identify an individual who metabolises nicotine faster you can treat them more effectively.’

Figures for the other corpora analyzed in the study are broadly comparable with figures from the general written English corpus both in overall magnitude and in the general trend over time.

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Either "himself" or "herself" is most accepted by prescriptive grammarians. "Herself" is increasingly used by itself in academic writing to counterbalance the sexist implications of assuming that everyone is male (by using the male form as the generic for all people).

"Themselves" is probably most common but (practically speaking) could be considered more casual.

I do not believe I have ever seen "themself" and would personally consider it the least appealing of all possible options. A native speaker might use it to make a point or promote language change, but in an obviously non-native speaker it would almost certainly be taken as an error.

If I were you, I would go with "him or herself" or "themselves."

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    +1 for the caution specific to language learners: I am quite sure that I have used "themself" before without anyone batting an eye, but a non-native speaker might not be so lucky. – WinnieNicklaus Jul 2 '14 at 20:05

There is no universally accepted "correct" answer: whatever you choose, himself or herself or themselves or themself, you are going to annoy some of your readers.

If you care, the only solution is to find another way of saying it.

Anyone can find the answer.
Anyone can find the answer without help.
You can find the answer yourself (and so can anyone else).
The answer is left to the reader to find.

—and so forth.

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  • I'm not too sure of their exact status in this context (or any other, come to that), but theirself and theirselves could also be used here. Neither of them would particularly annoy me, anyway. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Jul 2 '14 at 18:02
  • @FumbleFingers Don't say that! If everybody becomes as tolerant as you I will be out of a job! – StoneyB on hiatus Jul 2 '14 at 18:08
  • In matters of language, I'm always a bit inclined to think "rules are made to be broken" - but if people like you didn't at least know the rules and point them out from time to time, I wouldn't really be able to enjoy breaking them. Actually, I got a bit of a hammering on ELU yesterday for having the temerity to even describe a "pedantic rule" (that I cheerfully ignore, along with almost everyone else). I do think you're spot on here though - any "reflexive" form used with anyone is bound to be "wrong" to at least some people. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Jul 2 '14 at 20:27
  • I can't put my finger on exactly why, but I feel themself is the most "iffy" of all these possibilities to my ear, even though I'm inclined to think that in general the their- versions are the most seriously "dialectal". Maybe I just accept theirself more readily because I'm already inclined to be indulgent because it sounds more dialectal. Certainly my "natural" choice here would be themselves, but I know it's not beyond criticism. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Jul 2 '14 at 20:33
  • @FumbleFIngers Fersher. According to OED, themself was in fact the Standard form with they until about 1540, but disappeared in the next generation; it was already alternating with themselves, which superseded it. Theirself started appearing in the 14th century, based it seems on understanding such constructions as myself, ourself, yourself, itself, herself to be a marriage of a possessive and a nominative - likewise, hisself. Pronouns generally were very unstable down to about 1700. – StoneyB on hiatus Jul 2 '14 at 20:50

I would go with "themself."

Singular they/them has a long history in the English language, and has come back into style with a lot of mainstream publications as a way to avoid inserting gender into general statements like the one you're making.

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"Himself" or "herself" are both correct.

"Themselves" is technically incorrect, but has found common usage lately due to concerns about sexism.

The most practical advice is to avoid the idiom, e.g. with something like

"Anyone can find the answer without help." (slightly changes the meaning)

"One can find the answer oneself." (rather formal)

"One can find the answer on one's own." (still kind of formal)

"Anyone can find the answer using only common sense." (getting casual and changes the meaning somewhat)

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    "\"Themselves\" is technically incorrect, but has found common usage lately" - only as technically incorrect as using plural "you" in place of singular "thou". You can't object to one and not the other. Also, this usage is not at all recent. – DeveloperInDevelopment Jul 2 '14 at 20:53
  • "Has found common usage lately" is not equivalent to "was never used until recently." And "thou" is considered antiquated while both singular and plural they can be found in contemporary literature. I'm not sure why you'd ignore the difference. Yes, language has always changed, but that does not mean we throw all style guides into the wastebasket. – John Wu Jul 2 '14 at 21:45
  • "Themselves" is technically incorrect because the sentence then has conflicting number of subjects. The singular subject "any one" does not match with the plural "them". But in my own usage, I happily violate that rule in order to avoid gender bias. – MattClarke Jul 2 '14 at 22:53
  • @John Wu This is not a case of language changing; "singular they" has had continuous use, with Jane Austen, Lewis Carroll, and others using it during its prohibition. The only change was a brief failure among supposed experts to distinguish between syntactic number agreement and semantic number agreement (also @MattClarke). I'm not ignoring the fact that "thou" may be considered antiquated (though still in use, e.g. in the North of England). I'm pointing out that the typical use of "you" represents exactly the same syntactic "error" that, so prescriptivists claim, makes "they" incorrect. – DeveloperInDevelopment Jul 4 '14 at 13:20

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