Tuesday, January 15, 2013

a handy guide to the use of "we"

Writing is complicated! In the scrum of trying to express your inner thoughts in print, it's easy to lose sight of details like "am I one person or more than one person?" These days, I often see writers using "we" or "us" to refer to themselves, which is problematic, on account of there is only one of them and all. To prevent this all-too-understandable error, I've prepared a handy guide for when you can use "we" to refer to yourself.

1. Is more than one of you writing the sentence in question? Is it a collaborative work, authored by more than one person? Are you in some sense speaking for a group which was involved in the production of that text, or the project which that text describes?
2. Is your text a narrative or story, written in first person, in which events occurred to both the narrator and others?
3. Are you a monarch, regent, or similar figure of aristocratic leadership in a tradition where the ruler is understood to embody the state?
4. Are you an insufferable twat?

If the answer to any of the above is "yes," congratulations! You may refer to yourself with "we." If the answer is no, stick to "I." Alright, che?

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

what if you are schizo? wouldn't it make sense then to write we?

Freddie said...

That is an important point, and when I publish my collected works, will include it as an addendum.

yenwoda said...

We disagree.

Alex Waller said...

I should point out that I often refer to "we" in emails discussing technical details of a project with a client to make it seem like more than one person was involved in the decision making process when in reality it was just...me. :)

Freddie said...

Now that's a use that I thoroughly endorse.

Rasmus Xera said...

Oh Freddie, what have we done to offend your noble sensibilities this time?

Seriously though, I'm a serial offender of using 'we' in a campaigning tone. It tends to be a lot more persuasive to refer to a problem within a population (or humanity as a whole) in inclusive terms rather than from an outsider's perspective. People are much more receptive to criticism if they realize it's coming from within rather than from someone they have been trained to distrust by default for being an 'other'.

This is especially true when dealing with American-centric issues. We (there I go again) don't like taking criticism from anyone, let alone outside sources.

Freddie said...

I would rather have mockably noble sensibilities than an ignoble commitment to bullshit out of social necessity.

Freddie said...

He said good-naturedly.

Anonymous said...

The Dude: We dropped off the damn money...
The Big Lebowski: We?
The Dude: I! The Royal "we"! You know, the editorial...

Charles said...

Heh. I almost started this comment with a presumptuous "we."

So, uh, I'll own this one all by myself. I think it's crappy to use schizophrenia as a joke, as a dismissal, as a description of behavior that isn't related to someone's actual schizophrenia, or really for anything that does not in fact involve schizophrenia. I lost my best friend to schizophrenia and I cringe inside whenever I see it used that way. As I imagine that parents of a child with Down's I used to know must have cringed when, as a teenager, I said 'retard' in front of them. (Mental health terms: the 'retard' of the new millenium.)

Johannes said...

In mathematics, it is quite common for authors to write "we", even if the text has only one author. There are two typical uses:

1. we = the author + the reader, as in "We would expect [some property to hold]" when the statement is non-controversial and mainly serves to establish a context. A related formulation would be "Let us consider..."
2. we = the author, as in "In this paper, we show that..."

The second type of "we" could often in principle be replaced with "I", but that would draw attention to the author's person in an unwanted way --- the important thing is the matter at hand, the reasoning that is being communicated to the reader, not so much who in particular is sending the message. I think this is why it doesn't feel presumptuous --- on the contrary the use of "I" might, because it could seem like the author was trying to "steal the show"...

Zach said...

What if I don't know if we're an insufferable twat? What should we do then?

Freddie said...

I totally get that too, Johannes. Obviously, there are more appropriate cases than those I was making light of in this post. I just see a lot of the pure royal "we" in blog posts these days and it irks me.

badweather said...

we humans are truly an ecology and so I referring to myself as "WE" is technically accurate.

Since I personally regard self tyranny as abhorrent and opt rather for self stewardship, in light of the fact that the micro biota involved out number actual human cells (by about 90 trillion cells - 110 trillion and only 10 trillion are actually human) our blood being closest to seawater, and the gut bacteria is the earth in microcosm, we are really life encapsulate.

We is the correct term always.