Exploring the pathways of our lexicon
Just Say No to Nosism!
Last Sunday I wrote an On Language column for The New York Times Magazine about the editorial we, and all the sarcastic jokes that have been made about the presumptuous pronoun. "Nameless authors of editorials may find the pronoun we handy for representing the voice of collective wisdom," I wrote, "but their word choice opens them up to charges of gutlessness and self-importance." Since the column appeared, some of those voices of collective wisdom have risen to defend themselves.
Using we where I would suffice has been called nosism, after the Latin first-person plural pronoun nos. You won't find that word in many dictionaries beyond the Oxford English Dictionary, since it's archaic now and never was used much in the past. But I'm all for reviving the word to help name the we disease that continues to infect many written genres. (Equally rare, and equally worth reviving, is illeism, after the Latin third-person singular pronoun ille. Those who practice illeism talk about themselves in the third person: think of Bob Dole referring to himself as "Bob Dole." See Arnold Zwicky's discussion of illeism on Language Log here.)
My brother Carl Zimmer, a noted science writer, went so far as to put we (as in "We now know the fatality ratio of the current H1N1 influenza epidemic") on his Index of Banned Words (words that he has banned from the science-writing classes he teaches). Carl wrote, "all too often, people use it to refer to some hazy, ill-defined community that shares some common goal and knowledge, and that includes both the writer and the reader." That actually relates to the ambiguity between "inclusive" and "exclusive" forms of we, a shortcoming of English that I touch on in the On Language column — it's hard to know sometimes if the person being addressed in speech or writing is included in the scope of we.
Purveyors of nosism (not all of them nameless) got a little touchy about the column, and it led to some spirited discussions. Here's a sampling of the reactions I came across.
Tim Grobaty, Long Beach Press-Telegram:
The New York Times slammed us on Sunday. Called us "presumptuous." You know you're presumptuous when the New York Times says you are.
"The Perils of a Presumptuous Pronoun" was the headline of Ben Zimmer's "On Language" column in the Times' magazine and, while we've never allowed Zimmer, or William Safire for that matter, push us around, pronounwise, we have to admit to bowing a bit these days from the weight of "we." ...
Long after we began writing this column all by ourself, the "we" stayed with us. We will admit to finding occasional comfort in it over the years, holding onto the apron strings of its imposing plurality while taking potshots at targets too big to take on alone. Sometimes it came in handy to shoulder much of the blame in "our" mistakes.
There've been times when we've visualized the "we" of us while we're writing - those other staff writers who were supposed to have written their share of these columns even to this day, except they've all left for the sweet and terrifying freedom of the invitingly cold world outside this newspaper. You will never hear from them again.
Whatever solace we took in our imaginary plural pronoun pals was more than offset by the brickbats from people who don't understand its genesis or see any of the inherent humor in using the editorial or royal "we." It's a funny pronoun. We'll miss us.
Melville House, Moby Lives blog:
Some of us here at MobyLIves are guilty of using "we" in our blogposts, and so Zimmer's article gave us pause. Are we gutless? Imperial? Deserving of whippings?
There's a more innocent explanation. Melville House (and MobyLives) is an indie operation. Employees shout across the office to ask each other questions and the entire staff can sit around a single table. When a shocking/funny/bizarre pieces of literary news pops up, we talk about it together. So when we write "we," we use the term for the same reason a band or gang might use it: because we're in this together.
Wallyhood, the Wallingford, Seattle neighborhood blog:
We were perusing the New York Times magazine this morning, moving with the gentle lethargy of a man with three-quarters of a cup of coffee left to drink, when what should we find but a vicious attack on our writing style. ...
We must admit that we chose the "Wallyhood We" on a whim, at the moment our fingers rested on the keyboard to write the first post. If recollection serves, we were influenced by our own tag-line "news, gossip and goings-on from around the Wallingford neighborhood." If it was good enough for gossip columnists, it was good enough for us.
Carol Saller, The Subversive Copy Editor:
I noted, however, that in his amusing account of objections to the editorial "we," Zimmer does not call for a prohibition. "We" is a fine word with an honorable place in writing. It comes back to the idea of community that Zimmer mentions briefly, to the expression of ideas that a writer cannot rightly claim with an "I." When a writer seeks to build consensus, or speak on behalf of a family or organization, or opine—as I do—from within a group of like-minded people without setting herself above it, the first-person plural is honest and apt.
What do you think about nosism? Does the use of we for I have its place in collective writing? Let us (yes, us!) know in the comments below!