One Never Knows, Does One?
A reader has asked me to comment on a question, presumably from some sort of language quiz:
Please comment on this question. It’s how a person feels about (himself, oneself , themselves) that is important. The answer given is “himself.” What about “oneself” as the other possible answer. Is it acceptable?
My first reaction was surprise that “himself” was given as the correct answer.
Grammatically speaking, “himself” is the correct answer because it agrees in number with “person.” However, in these days of socially-conscious language, the only possible “correct” choice among the given options is “themselves” –not in terms of subject/verb agreement, of course, but in terms of “non-exclusive language.” (I have seen test keys that give just this type of ungrammatical answer as the “correct” answer.)
The word “oneself,” although singular, is not a possible answer. For “oneself” to work, the sentence would have to be:
It’s how one feels about oneself that is important.
The problem with one and oneself is that they sound awkward and stuffy to most English speakers.
Oneself sounds fine in a formal context, such as listing reflexive verbs in the infinitive form:
to hurt oneself
to enjoy oneself
to kick oneself
to talk to oneself
Using one as the subject of a sentence is something else again.
One could hurt oneself climbing on those rocks.
One could lose one’s way in this deep forest.
H.W. Fowler found the misuse of the impersonal one and its forms extremely irritating:
[The impersonal ‘one’] should never be mixed up with other pronouns. Its possessive is one’s, not his, and one should be repeated, if necessary, not be replaced by him, &c. Those who doubt their ability to handle it skilfully under these restrictions should only use it where no repetition or substitute is needed. —The King’s English, 2nd ed.
In modern usage “you” in the sense of “people in general” is a popular substitute for the impersonal “one”
Can you smoke in this office?
Can you put bottles in the regular trash container?
The objection to the use of this “impersonal you” is that it is ambiguous. I’ve heard speakers use “you’ in a general sense and quickly add something like “I mean ‘you in general,’ not just ‘you-you.’”
The impersonal pronoun one is too useful to do away with altogether, but one should perhaps avoid it when one can.
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