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’?

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  • Stan  On June 5, 2012 at 7:43 pm

    Another option would be to use their (“each one of us will have their own special triumphs…”), but the result would be less personal, and perhaps more jarring to some listeners.

    Merriam-Webster’s Pocket Guide to English Usage says indefinite pronouns are “heavily influenced by notional agreement and tend to take singular verbs but plural pronouns”. A recent example from my own writing: I concluded a post on themself with the suggestion that “each of us can choose for ourself”. I might equally have written ourselves, but I wanted to make a minor point; either way, the same emphasis on notional agreement over grammatical agreement would obtain.

  • Gonzalo Higuera Díaz  On September 12, 2012 at 11:18 pm

    Writing “each one of us” serves to point one out within a group; “our” binds the individual action as common to all. This serves to create a sense of belonging. In the same way, coupling “each one of them” with “their” identifies someone as an outsider belonging to another party. In both cases, the use of such identifiers serve to blur the distinction between singular and plural, allowing for example to carve out factions (ingroups or outgroups). I would therefore consider this a special situation that—at least by itself—does not make a case for the generalized use of the singular ‘we’ or ‘they’.

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