One Never Knows, Does One?

By Maeve Maddox

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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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10 Responses to “One Never Knows, Does One?”

  • Round One

    It seems a shame that over-sensitivity to political correctness has had such a damaging affect on some of the more rigid English grammar rules. Without being able to use himself in that instance, for God knows what reason really, we are left with two choices that are incorrect. It seems that using the plural is slowly being accepted by the readership in general, but strict editors will ding a writer for the S/V agreement error, and deservedly so. So maybe the question should read: ‘It’s how you feel about yourself that is important.’ In any case, recasting the sentence to rid it of grammar issues and other PC vermin seems the best solution.

  • GoingLikeSixty

    It’s how someone feels personally is important. (?)

  • GoingLikeSixty


  • Bob Kister

    I’m surprised the Daily Tip didn’t discuss this possibility for non-exclusive usage:

    “It’s how a person feels about himself or herself that is important.”

    What about updating ‘himself’ with a more inclusive ‘himself or herself’ in this situation? Might that be correct?

  • Rebecca Burgener

    I agree with the previous commenter. This world of political correctness is making our language awkward and incorrect. Can we find something else to bicker at each other about other than the gender of our pronouns?

    Personally, I would cringe at “themselves,” but I feel great annoyance at those that would say “herself” just to jab the guys. Most men have a proper respect for women, and I believe that respect existed even before our grandmothers won the right to vote.

    Roar! I am a woman! I do not feel threatened by “he” meaning “he or she” in general statements.

  • Kathryn

    Actually, as has been pointed out several times in recent months, “they/them/their” in the singular is a long-established (um, y’know, even Shakespearean?) usage, increasingly useful in these gender-neutral days to those who value rhythm and grace in the flow of written language. Unfortunately, in the sentence “It’s how a person feels about ___ that is important,” the correct insertion would be “themself,” not “themselves.” “Them” can function as the neutral third person singular, but not if you add the explicitly plural “selves.”

    And, OK, I realize that the creators of that quiz were testing knowledge of what they believed to be grammatic principles, but any competent writer could rephrase that sentence six ways from Sunday to avoid having to deal with the number and gender of the reflexive pronoun.

    Oh, btw Maeve–LOVELY to have you back! Huzzah!

  • Kathryn

    Mind you– the title for this post sounds wrong to me; as Fats Waller said. . .”One never know, do one?”

  • Joel Neely

    “How people feel about themselves is important.” solves two problems with the original wording: (1) it allows inclusive language without breaking subject/verb agreement, and (2) it eliminates the annoyingly redundant “double-is” construction that seems increasingly common (e.g. “What it is, is silly-sounding!”)

  • Maeve

    Bob Kister,
    I’d rather go with “themselves” than “himself or herself.”

    I agree that rephrasing (like GoingLikeSixty’s suggestion) is a simple way to avoid the various awkward, ungrammatical fixes. (And thanks for the welcome back. One do appreciate kind words.)

  • Peter

    Unfortunately, in the sentence “It’s how a person feels about ___ that is important,” the correct insertion would be “themself,” not “themselves.”

    “Themself” is not accepted by any authority, including those that advocate singular use of “they”. British sources say it’s not standard and American sources {for whatever they’re worth :)) claim it’s not even a real word. It’s clearly better usage, though, I agree.

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