When a user has not chosen to provide profile details, the boilerplate text is:

Apparently, this user prefers to keep an air of mystery about them.

That reads poorly, as noted by this answer on SE EL&U and some of the other answers to the question, Is there a correct gender-neutral singular pronoun ("his" vs. "her" vs. "their")?

There are alternative ways to word the sentence that would be better. Consider the following suggestions:

Apparently, this user prefers to keep an air of mystery.

Apparently, this user prefers to keep an air of mystery about themselves.

  • 8
    What, precisely, is grammatically incorrect? "X keeps a Y about them" is perfectly good, if perhaps somewhat old-fashioned, English. (If they had said "about their person" it would perhaps be clearer, if still more archaic.) Jul 24, 2015 at 23:57
  • 3
    It is not old-fashioned English. There isn't noun-verb agreement! X is singular, while Y is plural. Jul 24, 2015 at 23:59
  • 2
    Grammar edit suggestions usually don't work, for two reasons: 1) They're incorrections rather than corrections, and 2) Now that Jeff is gone, there are many small esses to deal with pluralization bugs. Now this fits 1 well.
    – M.A.R.
    Jul 24, 2015 at 23:59
  • 6
    Ever heard of singular "they"? No offence, but you're clearly not showing enough effort to know this isn't wrong grammar.
    – M.A.R.
    Jul 25, 2015 at 0:00
  • 3
    @EllieKesselman: "an air of mystery" is not plural. Jul 25, 2015 at 0:00
  • @inɒzɘmɒЯ.A.M What is an incorrection? Also, what does your second bullet point mean, "Now this fits 1 well"? Jul 25, 2015 at 0:00
  • 1
    @NathanTuggy I know it isn't! I wasn't referring to an air of mystery. I am referring to "about them" or "about themselves". User is singular. Them or themselves is plural. Jul 25, 2015 at 0:01
  • 7
    No, "them/themselves" is singular here. This is a natural way to indicate gender neutrality.
    – M.A.R.
    Jul 25, 2015 at 0:02
  • 1
    SE doesn't have its own grammar, separate from the rest of the world. EL&U SE uses correct English grammar. Meta SE should too. Jul 25, 2015 at 0:03
  • 16
    – M.A.R.
    Jul 25, 2015 at 0:04
  • 1
    @tchrist: That question says to open a new question for any additional bugs. Jul 25, 2015 at 0:32
  • 5
    No offense, but I really don't see the issue here - i doubt that there will be riots in the streets over a dispute about grammar. Having said that, if there are riots in the streets over a grammar dispute, I would like to see the footage of the grammar police with their exclamation battons charging.
    – user289879
    Jul 25, 2015 at 4:37
  • 2
    MSO dup, MSE dup and ELU post
    – Spikatrix
    Jul 25, 2015 at 5:47
  • 1
    Grammar fights are awesomely funny!
    – user289879
    Jul 25, 2015 at 7:23
  • 1
    @EllieKesselman So it isn't grammatically incorrect. It can be used. IMO, you should provide the link to the ELU post here and should point out the critisism.
    – Spikatrix
    Jul 25, 2015 at 13:41

1 Answer 1


You appear to be objecting to two slightly unusual features of the sentence. The first is the use of "them" to refer to a singular individual, and the second is the omission of "-self". I don't know what else to tell you about the use of singular them; it's quite common, however awkward it may seem on general principles, so it must essentially be taken as the unfortunate wart on English that it is and accepted.

But even the objection to "them" instead of "themselves" is not really warranted. A sentence like "He wrapped his cloak about him" (with no one else around to refer to with "him") is not wrong: it is old-fashioned. (For example, the King James Version uses that general pattern in II Sam 22:12.) And that's exactly the same pattern being used here.

  • 3
    @EllieKesselman: "About" is being used in more of a location sense than an informational sense, which is really why I thought of that passage in the first place. The "air of mystery" is being kept around them, rather than keeping an air of mystery regarding their information. Jul 25, 2015 at 0:57
  • 1
    Ok, i also thought it was grammaticaly incorrect : there is absolutely no way i can translate this in my own language and end up with something valid, i guess it's one of these poethic english formulations. Good to know, i upvote this considering it answered my question.
    – Antoine
    Nov 22, 2016 at 18:56
  • When the subject has a definite singular number assigned to it 'them' is never correct. "Apparently, this user (insert name of single individual here) prefers to keep an air of mystery about them." cannot be made grammatically correct. Only when a singular number is not definitively assigned to the subject is it appropriate to use they/them. For instance, "Janice has something to say, let them speak." is wrong while "Whomsoever has something to say, let them speak." is correct. Nov 2, 2020 at 13:32

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