Last fall, Visual Thesaurus editor Ben Zimmer wrote here and in his New York Times column about writers who use a we voice when truly they are I's writing personal opinions. In a few cases, Zimmer wrote, he'd accept using the plural pronoun for the singular, officially called nosism, from nos, we in Latin, but in general he deplored the practice. Using we for I opens writers up to "charges of gutlessness and self-importance," Zimmer wrote; "the we disease...continues to infect many written genres."
In part I agree. Newspaper editorials interest and convince me less than op-ed pieces do, largely because op-ed pieces are signed, individual voices, and editorials are anonymous, groupthink pronouncements. Whenever I hear Queen Victoria's famous "We are not amused," I imagine Lenny Bruce zapping her back: "Maybe you're not amused, Vicky baby, but your ladies-in-waiting are busting their corsets." Trying to hide one's unique self under a presumptuous we is more likely to expose than conceal weaknesses in a writer's thought or style. Every writer is an I, a unique human being; I's stand on their own two feet.
Yet I often use we in my writing, and at times I'll rewrite to increase the number of we's in a piece and decrease the number of I's. I use we not, I believe, to hide or to inflate myself, but to reach out to readers, hoping to find ideas and beliefs that we can agree on wholeheartedly. For example, in a recent column on chronology, I wrote this:
Most important, chronology accords with how we live. No one can jump back to Monday from Tuesday; no one can get to September without sweating through August. We're all stuck with Macbeth's "petty pace from day to day"; we might as well get used to it.
—using those three we's confident that I'd tossed no reader into a we where he or she didn't belong. Every human does live in moment-to-moment time; when I meet someone who lives outside of time, I'll gladly rewrite.
Many fiction writers use we as a tried and true method of bringing their characters to life. Reading fiction, we join a three-way bond between writer, reader, and character. Writer and reader are real, characters are imaginary, but to engage readers, writers must convince them that the characters are as human as real humans. Early in Framley Parsonage, for example, Anthony Trollope paints an ambitious young vicar, Mark Robarts, who gets a flattering invitation to visit a duke in his castle. Robarts knows he should turn down the invitation—his patroness disapproves of the duke's scandalous reputation—but he wants to go:
When Mark went to bed, his mind was still set against going to the duke's; but, nevertheless, he did feel that it was a pity that he should not do so. After all, was it necessary that he should obey Lady Lufton in all things?
Trollope, who knew his Victorian readers well, knows many would think, "Mr. Robarts is a happily married clergyman, he'd be above such temptation," so he turns for a moment away from his tale and talks directly to his readers, trying to convince them that Robarts would be tempted:
It is no doubt very wrong to long after a naughty thing. But nevertheless we all do so....When we confess that we are all sinners, we confess that we all long after naughty things.
With many such asides Trollope convinces me that Mark Robarts and dozens of similar characters are as human as Trollope, me, and you. Because I believe Robarts real, I follow his ups and downs as eagerly as I follow my friends' and neighbors' ups and downs. Yes, I say, looking about myself, Betty, Bob, and I would be just as tempted to go as Robarts was; Betty might hold out, but Bob and I, I'm sure, would give in to temptation and end up going to the duke's—as Robarts does a few pages later.
George Eliot uses we asides as often as Trollope —"It is not true that love makes all things easy; love makes us choose what is difficult" (from Felix Holt)—but she goes far beyond confessing common foibles to embracing her readers in soul-to-soul accord on the beauty and tragedy of unchanging human experience. Romola begins one spring morning in 1492, the sun rising over Italy's plains and cities. The daylight then, Eliot writes, "fell, as now, on the rosy warmth of nestling children; on the haggard waking of sorrow and sickness":
The great river courses which have shaped the lives of men have hardly changed; and those other streams, the life-currents that ebb and flow in human hearts, pulsate to the same great needs, the same great loves and terrors. As our thought follows close in the slow wake of the dawn, we are impressed with the broad sameness of the human lot, which never alters in the main headings of its history—hunger and labor, seed-time and harvest, love and death.
In his piece on we, Ben Zimmer quoted his brother, science writer Carl Zimmer: "All too often, people use [we] to refer to some hazy, ill-defined community that shares some common goal and knowledge." "Hazy and ill-defined"; yes, those are the weaknesses of many we's. No one likes being shoved into a hazy we that feels like a them. Remember Tonto's classic retort to the Lone Ranger's cry, "We're done for, we're surrounded by Indians": "What you mean we, white man?"
Yet a million weak we's don't weaken the construction. In The Language Instinct Stephen Pinker quotes an anthropologist who compiled a long list of human traits from cultures around the world. The list he came up with, shared by what he called the Universal People, can only be read with many a rueful chuckle over our idiocies and imperfections. Here's a sample:
...Punishment. Conflict, which is deplored. Rape. Seeking redress of wrongs. Mediation. In-group/out-group conflicts. Property. Inheritance of property. Sense of right and wrong. Envy. Etiquette. Hospitality. Feasting. Diurnality. Standards of sexual modesty. Sex generally in private. Fondness for sweets. Food taboos. Discreetness in elimination of body wastes. Supernatural beliefs. Magic to sustain and increase life, and to attract the opposite sex. Theories of fortune and misfortune. Explanations of disease and death.
This list means to me that sentences like:
When Bill learned that Joe, his old high school buddy, had become a millionaire with a beautiful wife and four charming children, he envied him, just as we would, dear reader, don't you deny it!
The door flew open, in came the cops, and there were Betty and Bob naked in bed, making love. Ashamed to be seen like this, as we all would be, the couple tried to cover themselves with the blanket.
—have, if not brilliance, basic truth to life. We humans do have many traits in common, and one goal of writing is to observe and define these traits so that others can read of them and be once again amazed, amused, and edified by how much we are like our neighbors, and how much our neighbors are like us.