Monthly Archives: June 2012

Singular ‘we’

Discussions of singular ‘they’ are abundant, and sometimes impassioned. Is it an awkward, undignified, new-fangled logical absurdity or a handy, well-established usage that’s maybe a bit on the informal side? I find that its supporters have by far the better of the argument.

But what’s rarer to see is a discussion of the first-person equivalent, the singular ‘we’. I must have come across this usage thousands of times, but I’d never noticed it for what it is until I spotted a couple during my review of the Queen’s Christmas messages last week:

each one of us will have our own special triumphs or tragedies to look back on (1969)

each one of us has a primary and personal responsibility for our own children (1979)

Here, the first part establishes a singular subject, ‘each one of us’, that is later given what is apparently a first-person plural: ‘our’. (Despite the speaker, these aren’t cases of the royal we.)

A traditionally minded pedant would replace both with ‘his’; a more modern pedant might use ‘his or her’:

each one of us will have his own special triumphs or tragedies to look back on

each one of us has a primary and personal responsibility for his or her own children

But the usual problems arise: ‘his’ and its associates (‘he’, ‘him’, ‘himself’) are predominantly associated with maleness, while ‘his or her’ and its associates are pretty stilted.

Singular ‘we’ is the natural solution. So natural, in fact, that complaints about it – or even mentions of it – are rare. So why all the fuss about singular ‘they’?

The Queen’s English

“Define the 1 percent however you want—the upper echelons of commerce, government, culture, academia, even the British royal family—and you’d be hard-pressed to argue that they are paragons of correct usage and good style.” – Steven Pinker, yesterday

It’s funny he should mention it.

To mark this weekend’s Diamond Jubilee, I’ve looked at what the Queen’s English really is.

Every year since 1952, the Queen has delivered a Christmas message, the texts of which are all online. I have no idea whether she takes any advice on language, but – unlike the ‘Queen’s speech’ to Parliament – these messages she presents as her own thoughts in her own words.

I haven’t done a proper linguistic analysis because I wouldn’t know where to begin. What I have done is make a handful of observations about her usage, keeping in mind the ‘rules’ that language sticklers like to enforce. I use scare-quotes because many such ‘rules’ are disputed, declining, dead, spurious, mythical or pointless. Some of the ‘errors’ that follow I personally regard as fine, some I find iffy, and some I recoil from in not-quite-mock-horror.

I present this to illustrate that when people claim to be defending ‘the Queen’s English’, they may well be taking her name in vain.

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