Three Pronouns That Don’t Exist
This post was inspired by a caller on a local radio show this morning who was for the most part quite well-spoken. He correctly, for example, used the word disaffected. But he also occasionally used the word theirselves.
This linguistic aberration has two related versions: theirself and theirselfs. The accepted word is themselves. It is what we call a third-person plural reflexive pronoun. In another post I’ll talk about the correct use of reflexive pronouns, but for now, just understand that theirselves is non-standard and likely to be looked down upon by those who care about proper grammar.
Folks who use theirselves are sometimes also inclined to confuse the standard pronoun himself with the non-standard hisself. I rarely see either of these in print, but perhaps users would spell them as two words: their selves or his self. Either way, they are still popularly unacceptable.
Mines is a dictionary-recognized word, but only as a plural noun (They sentenced the criminal to hard labor in the mines.) At the school where I used to teach, however, it was common for students to use this as the first person possessive pronoun:
Me: Whose pen is this?
Student: That’s mines, Mr. Wasko.
There is no s in this pronoun. The word is simply mine.
I know there are many grammar-conscious people out there who cringe at the words theirselves, hisself, and mines. Patience, my friends. Deep breaths. These words may seem alien to those of us who grew up in homes and neighborhoods where standard English was consistently spoken. For us, they sound just completely wrong. And it may be hard to imagine how people can actually confuse them with the obviously correct words themselves, himself, and mine.
But realize that these latter words only sound correct because we are used to hearing them. The truth is, there is a quite rational explanation for how theirselves, hisself, and mines came to be.
Look at the reflexive pronouns: myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, themselves. Notice anything? To make it more obvious, let’s remove the third-person ones. That leaves us with myself, yourself, ourselves, and yourselves. Do you see that the first syllable of each of these words is the possessive form of the pronoun: my, your, our, and your?
For whatever inexplicable reason, third-person reflexive pronouns are created differently — from the regular form of the pronouns: him, her, it, and them rather than the possessive forms like the first and second-person ones. So why do folks only confuse himself and themselves? It’s obvious — because the possessive form of her is identical: her, and the possessive form of it is its, which blends indistinguishably into itself. They would both sound the same if they were formed from the regular or the possessive form: herself and itself.
Hisself and theirselves actually fit the pattern established by myself, yourself, herself, etc. In other words, the “incorrect” versions are actually consistent with the pattern (possessive pronoun plus self or selves), and the “correct” versions are the exceptions. I find the mistake easy to understand (and overlook).
Same goes for mines. Mine is the exception. The other nominative possessive pronouns are yours, his, hers, its, ours, and theirs. The only one that doesn’t fit the pattern — by not ending with an s — is mine:
- The book is yours.
- The book is his.
- The book is hers.
- The book is ours.
- The book is theirs.
- The book is mine.
I’m not suggesting we encourage students to say hisself, theirselves, or mines. I’m not suggesting we revise our grammar. I’m just saying these are logical mistakes, especially for someone who doesn’t learn the language in a largely standard-English environment.
If you have something to add or a response of any kind, please do us the favor of leaving a comment below!