On the Problems of “We”, the Royal We, and the Famous "We's" of History. [UPDATE.]
[UPDATE: Some interesting things came out of this post, so I’m going to develop it further. Even while writing I saw how I wrote into thesis so to speak. I’ll leave the original up for the time being, and I’ll share here when I complete the long-form version.] When someone uses “we” to describe a general condition or state about a population, that person makes a dangerous assumption by speaking for all of us. This is a peeve of mine; and yet I’m guilty. Look at one of my recent blog posts. I write,
“We search for stories to explain actions when no story accurately correlates with the cause. The action has an explanation—regression to the mean—but it does not have a relatable cause.”
My use of “we” at the beginning of the sentence suggests the following:
(1) I used American Heritage Dictionary’s definition, which says “we” is “used by the writer to refer to people in general, including the writer”.
(2) By referring to people in general, I lump not only myself but also you into this generality.
(3) In doing so, I assume and expect you to “search for stories to explain actions.”
(4) I fail to clarify the audience to whom I refer when I wrote “We search . . . .”
I assumed the voice of others, and I spoke for them. This is lazy writing. And in contemporaneity, it’s dangerous. Why, then, do “we”, or dare I now say “I”, write lazily? The simplest explanation suggests I write “we” because I prefer to share an embarrassing generalization with a community. Said differently, I don’t want to be the only person responsible for a broad generalization. This, I think, is a psychological turn. As I speak or write, I subconsciously or consciously worry about how my listeners or readers will judge my actions. Plus, I consider myself quite special and superficially unique, so for me to lump myself into a classificatory system of generalized thinking and acting is a horrific tragedy! I am unique! I must be unique and different and special! Terminally. If I do it, most assuredly you do it too. My guess is that’s how I think when I slip from the “I” to the “we”. Example:
“We are lazy. “
“I am lazy.”
For the case of “We are lazy”, the sentence’s structure says everyone is lazy. By using “we”, I shift the burden from my laziness to our collective laziness. I’m not alone in my laziness for I have you—all of you—as accomplices. It’s an easy way to write; and when I’m finished, I feel better about myself for not indulging in singular sloth.
When, on the other hand, I write “I am lazy”, I take responsibility for my laziness. It falls directly and belongs to me. This is not to say you’re not lazy; it is to say I recognize I am lazy, and I own it. Additionally, I speak for no one else about their laziness—here only I laze about.
The standard text for grammar and composition among English departments is The Hodges Harbrace Handbook. Chapter 5 deals directly with pronouns, of which “I” and “we” are classed. A pronoun is defined as “a word used in place of a noun that has already been mentioned"—its antecedent”. (70) For my purpose, “I” functions as a personal pronoun of the subjective case in the singular number. “We” also operates in the subjective case but with a plural number. When I write of cases, of course, I refer to the form a pronoun takes to indicate its function in a sentence. The subjective case—the case of “I” and “we”—clarifies that the singular and plural pronouns operate as nouns in their respective sentences. Their sisters, “me” and “us” fall as objective pronouns in a sentence structure; that is, they are objects.
“He wants his legislators to help him.”
In the above sentence, “he” operates in the subjective case; “his” operates in the possessive case”; and “him” operates in the objective case. (I took the sentence from Harbrace because it shows all three cases.)
Any pronoun that is the subject of a sentence is in the subjective case. Wherever a pronoun follows an action verb or preposition, it takes the objective case. Below I cite verbatim from Harbrace about using “I” and “we”.
“Using I is appropriate when you are writing about personal experience. In academic writing, the use of the first-person singular pronoun is also a way to distinguish your views from others.
“We, the first-person plural pronoun, is trickier to use correctly. When you use it, make sure that your audience can tell which individuals are included in the plural reference. For example . . . does we mean you and your instructor, you and your fellow students, or some other group?” (80)
There exists two particularly famous “we’s” I must address.
Firstly, “We hold these truths to be self-evidence, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Secondly, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
The Declaration of Independence speaks on behalf of the Representatives of the United States of America. The “we” of “we hold these truths” is defined later by signatories. Moreover, the “we” go so far as to sign the declaration while also pledging each others’ “Lives”, “Fortunes”, and “Sacred Honor”. Clearly, these fellows took the “we” seriously. They meant what they said.
The Constitution of the United States of America might be the most famous “we” in history. Again, a collection of people gathered together and voted on the language. It quite literally speaks on behalf of the signers, who speak on behalf of the people who elected them as representatives.
These are, in my opinion, proper uses of “we”.
Before I move to conclusion, I must address another scenario: The Royal We or pluralis majestatis (the majestic plural). Again, American Heritage Dictionary offers a useful definition: “n. The first-person plural pronoun used by a sovereign in formal address to refer to himself or herself”. The Royal We dates back to the twelfth century, when Henry II referred to himself in the “we” to mean “God and I”. The Royal We is hysterically fun and funny.
Interesting to consider that the Founders and Framers focused closely on the proper use of “we”, which referred to people who were aware of the contents of their respective documents—one a declaration of war, the other the forming of a government—in response to a monarch who referred to himself, also, in the Royal We, meaning himself and God. Whereas a united Republic’s “we” refers to the people; a monarchy’s Royal We refers to God and king. And this dovetails into a more complex issue about the rights of man. The Founders and Framers believed their rights came from God and were observable in nature (self-evident). In monarchy, rights come from God through His representative on earth, the king. The Framers worried specifically about a Bill of Rights because they feared others might interpret it as rights coming from government instead of God. And they were right; this debate rages today.
To sum up, when you say “we” but fail to specify who you include in the “we”, you speak for others. And even if you do make clear other individuals incorporated in the “we”, do you have the right to do so? Use of “we” embodies an insecurity about personal actions. By shifting to “I” in proffered examples, you personalize the account and humanize yourself. We like to see each other’s flaws. (Do you see what I did there?) I like to see your flaws; I like to know you succumb to generalizations; I like to know you’re like me. So drop the “we” when describing collective actions and take up the “I”. Put your person into it.
(Note: I am an offender, as I mentioned earlier. There are times when “we” is fully appropriate. I mean not to write grammar law here; I mean only to share my personal opinion.)