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the textbook "the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language", page 1497 (the link):
(1) You will be the President himself.
Am I right that "himself" means the gender of the subject "you" is masculine?

my variant:
(2) You will be the President herself.
Am I right that "herself" means the gender of the subject "you" is feminine?

my variant:
(3) You will be the President themselves.
Am I right that "themselves" means the gender of the subject "you" is not defined?


my variant:
(4) You will be the President itself.
Is (4) correct?

my logic:
The noun "President" is not someone but something. Therefore, we must use "itself".
That is, by my logic, (1), (2) and (3) must be all incorrect and (4) must be the only one which is correct.
Why is my logic wrong?


Update:
I wrote "the noun "President" is not someone but something" — because in wordreference.com's thread, they said "the job title is 'the thing'".

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  • 2
    This is an odd sentence. Changing "himself" to "itself" doesn't fix it, but your instinct that it doesn't quite work is right. Jan 10 at 7:38
  • Looking at Joe Biden, it seems very clear that he is someone, and not something. Jan 10 at 7:52
  • Can you please give an example of an inanimate object that has been a president? There is an apocryphal story that Caligula, a Roman emperor, made his a horse a senator which is perhaps the most well-known "myth" of an animal holding a political position. In that case, you could justify telling the horse "You will be a senator yourself” Oh, no... Wait, in the 3rd person "The horse itself will be a senator" that works.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 10 at 8:24
  • Besides "themselves", why not also "oneself"? Jan 10 at 8:30
  • @Mari-LouA I added an update into the end of my question. Could you tell me please my train of thoughts is clear now or I need to clarify something else?
    – Loviii
    Jan 10 at 8:43

3 Answers 3

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The distinction between the example in the WordReference thread and the example in CGEL is that one is referring to a role, and the other to an identity.

As a role, we can talk about "being a president" - "Joe Biden is a president", "Paul von Hindenburg was a president". In this case, "a president" is "something that you are" - we can also say "Joe Biden is a man", "Joe Biden is a Democrat", etc.

However, this doesn't mean that Joe Biden is "something", because Joe Biden is an identity. We can refer to the same person as "the 46th President of the USA", or in the right context simply as "the President". In this case, "the president" is clearly "someone", not "something".

When we're using a pronoun to refer back to "the president", we are using it in the "identity" sense - we are talking about Joe Biden or Paul von Hindenburg, not the role of head of state. That means we need to use "himself" or "herself"; or, in case we're not sure or want to recognise a non-binary gender identity, "themselves" (or "themself", which some purists dislike but is quite common colloquially).

We don't use "it" when referring to people, so we would say "Joe Biden himself" and "the President himself"; never *"Joe Biden itself" or *"the President itself".

So, we have:

He has the ability to be something

What is it he has the ability to be?

To be a president

But:

I think someone is coming

Who is coming?

The President himself


It's worth adding that the CGEL example has been contrived to make a point about theoretically possible grammar, which is why it sounds a bit awkward. To imagine some context for it, let's say John and Mary are being given parts in a play:

"Mary, you will be the president's wife" said the director.

"And who will I be?" asked John.

"You will be the president himself!"

In this case, "you" and "himself" are actually referring to different people: "you" refers to John, the actor; "himself" refers to "the president", the person John will pretend to be in the play. This is the point CGEL is making with the example.

This also allows us to answer this question:

Am I right that "himself" means the gender of the subject "you" is masculine?

No: we can imagine if Mary was given the role of the president, and identifies as a woman; but the character being played was a man (maybe it's a play about John F Kennedy). "You" would refer to Mary, and in the third person it would be "She will be the president himself".

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  • The question is not whether "himself" is used correctly, it is, what the OP wants to know if their variant 4. You will be the President itself. is correct and adds Why is my logic wrong? You've not mentioned it at all.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Feb 11 at 22:12
  • @Mari-LouA I hoped the reasoning was clear: "Joe Biden himself" and "the President himself"; not *"Joe Biden itself" and `*"the President itself". I've edited to make that more explicit. I've also thought of a way to include "it" in the "ability to..." example; hopefully it's not too convoluted.
    – IMSoP
    Feb 11 at 22:20
  • @Mari-LouA As for "the question is not whether himself is used correctly", I disagree. The OP says "(1), (2) and (3) must be all incorrect" - so an answer saying they are correct is directly answering that part of the question.
    – IMSoP
    Feb 11 at 22:24
  • I see, you are right, I had forgotten that part.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Feb 11 at 22:27
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Some comments suggest the original sentence sounds odd. I don't entirely agree: awkward maybe, but "You will be the President himself" certainly comes across as grammatical to me, as it did to the writers of the CambridgeGEL, who describe it as a "possible" use of himself. "You will be the President herself" is correctly formed as the feminine equivalent.

  • "(3) You will be the President themselves": This is a less common wording. "Themselves" as a pronoun of undefined gender is mainly used when the identity of the person is not known (in contexts like "Whoever borrowed the book will have to return it themselves"; an alternative that can be heard is "themself"). Normally, when you say "You will...", you know the identity and gender of the person that you're talking to. You would use "himself" in this sentence if the person is male, and "herself" if the person is female. Of course, when discussing pronoun use and gender in English, it is worth mentioning that some people request to be referred to with the pronouns they/them/theirs... because of their gender expression (e.g. some but not all nonbinary people prefer this set of pronouns). In that case, the reason for using "Themselves" would be because that is the specific pronoun that person has said to use. Other people might request to be referred to specifically with pronouns like "himself" or "herself", or alternatives. In those circumstances and in general, the choice of pronoun would depend on the specific person that you're talking about. "Themselves" is not just a simple substitute for "himself" or "herself".

  • "(4) You will be the President itself": This does not sound right. Unfortunately, "the noun 'President' is not someone but something" is simplistic to the point of being erroneous. Depending on the context, "President" could be either someone or something. We can use the wording "be something" with people to describe what they do or are, but it doesn't mean that the word "President" itself always is always used with neuter pronouns like it: it normally isn't.

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  • I'm confused. For example, if we have the sentence "He is the President / a doctor / a driver", then is "the President / a doctor / a driver" something or someone? Thanks.
    – Loviii
    Feb 10 at 8:34
  • @Loviii: That question isn't straightforward to answer because it depends on the context. The use of pronouns in English isn't based on inherent grammatical properties of nouns. The same thing/noun can be "someone" or "something" depending on the point of view that you're taking towards it
    – sumelic
    Feb 10 at 9:17
  • "President/doctor/driver" etc all refer to a person in that sentence. I don't agree that this isn't straightforward. It seems very straightforward!
    – James K
    Feb 11 at 19:31
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  1. You will be the president himself (herself / themself (singular) / themselves (plural))

The gender of "you" is not predefined, it could be a man (he), woman (she), intersex or gender fluid (they or it if that is someone's preferred pronoun). The CGEL example above is highly unusual inasmuch as the pronoun "you" appears to conflict with the noun phrase "the president himself". I don't think there would be many native speakers who would say or write this statement. Perhaps a political journalist or a politician might say that to a candidate.


Public positions or job titles are held by people, not things or animals.

Nonetheless there is an apocryphal story about Caligula, a Roman emperor, who made his a horse a senator. It is perhaps the most well-known "myth" of an animal holding a political position, in which case, you could justify telling the horse:

(a) You yourself will be a senator
(b) You will be a senator yourself

If you were telling a friend, you could say

(c) He himself will be a senator.
(d) He will be a senator himself

No. The pronouns "you" and "he" work for humans too because the reflexive pronoun for "he" is "himself" and the reflexive pronoun for "you" is either "yourself" (singular) or "yourselves" (plural). But we can use the 3rd person singular pronoun "it" in this way

(e) The horse itself will be a senator
(f) The horse will be a senator itself.

All these versions work.

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  • Yes, I agree. Worth pointing out that, according to CGEL, You will be the President himself. is an utterance where third person himself cannot have you as antecedent. So, he is saying it is a no-go. Sometimes, their writing is so arcane. My problem is that I do not even understand what it means and actually think it's nonsense.
    – Lambie
    Feb 9 at 14:00

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