Word Routes

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!


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Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Friday October 8th 2010, 2:19 AM
Comment by: Ted A. (Broken Arrow, OK)
I think the explanation by Melville House is the only place for 'we', when a person is representing a known group or entity and it is understood that the 'we' does not include the audience of the work. Such an entity can consist of only two people, for example the blog of http://www.penny-arcade.com which produces a regular webcomic. Mike Krahulik illustrates the comic and Jerry Holkins writes it. 90% of all blog posts are made by Jerry and when he uses the term 'we' he only does it when he is speaking for the both of them as partners.
Friday October 8th 2010, 3:42 AM
Comment by: Noel B.
I agree with you & your brother on this one - "we" should indicate a collaborative piece of wring or research.. or whatever, apart from being a monarch, I suppose!
Friday October 8th 2010, 8:50 AM
Comment by: Gordon W. (Jonesboro, GA)
As a reader (or hearer) I am seldom informed of the antecedent personal nouns to which "we" is referring. To take Ted A's comment, since I am unfamiliar with Jerry Holkins' blog posts would I know that when he uses "we" he only and always is referring to himself and Mike? If I didn't know that how many of Jerry's posts would I have to read to come to that knowledge?

In political writing and speaking "we" is most often a weasel word.
Friday October 8th 2010, 9:48 AM
Comment by: Federico E. (Camuy, PR)
I think there's a place for nosism in academic writing. The opposite tendency, of having an absentee author submerged in passive constructions ("It has been shown that [...]", "It will be argued that [...]"), is sorrowfully common, and in my opinion it makes for dreary reading. Using first-person pronouns is a natural solution. And, in some cases, an inclusive we, as you presented it in the NYT article, is quite expressive and it helps tone down the apparent despotism of the first-person singular. So, say an argument has already been presented, and the author is coming back to it later on in the essay; a simple "As we have seen" in that case is very clear and honest (after all, the I of the writer plus the I of the reader equals the we of that sentence). Instead, "I have shown" repeated often enough makes for a bossy and monotonous voice. In my opinion at least.

On the other hand, the collaborative we, as evinced by the Melville House comment, is so often true that I find no fault with many we's for that reason. How often is a book truly a single-person venture these days? Perhaps those books written on a computer immured in some cellar and published directly online. But most published writing is at least minimally collaborative, so saying we is actually a doffing of the hat to reality.
Friday October 8th 2010, 10:17 AM
Comment by: noblsavaj (San Antonio, TX)
No matter how wee the issue...

Lazy use of the plural pronoun should be chastised, I suppose, and any pronoun should be identified in previous reference. (I am noblsavaj of Helotes, Texas, as it says on this post.)

However, "we the people" could use a variety of spokes-writers as we struggle against the seemingly endless forces that involve us in war against our biosphere and other human communities.

"We" the gathered organization likewise deserves a pronoun that utilizes and celebrates our commonweal.

And the global assemblage of writers, pursuing both muse and essential gesture, should attend to this online community and others as we use language to achieve good.
Friday October 8th 2010, 12:09 PM
Comment by: Mary Lee M.
Does the use of we for I have its place in collective writing? You bet it does! Far from presumptuousness on the part of the writer, I agree with the respondant here who said that "it helps tone down the apparent despotism of the first-person singular."
Friday October 8th 2010, 6:19 PM
Comment by: nannywoo is back (Wilmington, NC)
I admit to liking the use of "we" and finding the first person plural more friendly and far less stuffy than the passive syntax described above by "Anonymous" and the "despotism of the first-person singular" seconded above by Mary Lee M. "We" also works much better than the inclusive "you" that many student writers try to use.

Of course, "we" is most persuasive when preaching to the choir. Whether or not "we" succeeds as "ethos" may depend on how otherwise balanced the tone of one's argument may be: if we like the speaker, perhaps we are pleased to be included in his or her choir. If we don't agree and never will agree and don't like the presumptuous person who tells us what WE think, the argument is doomed. But perhaps it was doomed already. (Then there's William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" with the "we" of the narration representing the small-minded, gossipy busybodies of a small town, including the readers as voyeurs, as we can't take our eyes away from the macabre final scene. WE become complicit in Emily's lonely life and death. We failed to draw the circle that took her in.)

Saints preserve us (yes, US)from "one" as in "One finds these truths to be self-evident, that one is endowed by one's creator with certain inalienable rights..." or is that how it goes?

Perhaps, our acceptance of "we" depends upon the discourse: In the example sentence "We now know the fatality ratio of the current H1N1 influenza epidemic," replacing "we" with "Researchers in the field" (or a noun phrase indicating who "we" might be) adds not only clarity but information and authority, critical in science writing. Arguably, seeking out noun phrases to replace many of the pronouns wandering vaguely through our prose may force writers to think more critically and creatively, as we discover nuances of meaning and seek out precise language to express them.
Saturday October 9th 2010, 6:38 PM
Comment by: James W. (Fountain Hills, AZ)
When the "we" supplants the proper singular "I", I would call it pretentious. I've always assumed the editorial "we" referred to a group, such as the editorial board of a newspaper, and represented some sort of collective agreement on a position. These pieces are never signed, though one might expect their authorship resides with one individual who represents the collective judgment of the group, or at a minimum, some loosely defined consensus. Consistent with this understanding, "we" serves quite well and is, in my opinion, preferable.
Saturday October 9th 2010, 7:59 PM
Comment by: John S.
I think Carl makes a very important point with regard to academic or scientific writing. In the example,
"We now know the fatality ratio of the current H1N1 influenza epidemic," I think it would be much better to state exactly who is arguing that the fatality ratio is different from what some unspecified entity originally believed. I would prefer "the CDC now argues that the fatality ratio of the H1N1 influenza epidemic" because it would give me a source to check on. I could go to the CDC publication and read it myself.
Sunday October 10th 2010, 11:17 AM
Comment by: Linda S. (Brisbane, CA)
As a twin, when speaking of our childhood and remembrances of things past, I naturally use "we" in that context -- but of course, to strangers, I must explain (particularly after the 2nd or 3rd use of "we" elicits a raised brow, or a lowered one) that I'm a twin and that in my life, there really is a "we" experiencing and participating -- that I'm not under delusions of grandeur or simply being pretentious.
Likewise, when one is actually speaking for a defined collective or a community, (it seems preferable) [or] (one certainly ought) to use "we" rather than the single authorship of "I"-- an "I" who is taking all the credit for a shared opinion or work -- although "we" usually find this construction used, along with the passive, as a way of spreading blame or claiming universal truth, which is often far less helpful in clarifying communication.
Personally, I like having all options on the table: whether one speaks or writes as one, as an I, or as a collaborative we -- and even the we vs. them, referring to the often vilified "they" which serves to polarize and separate us, i.e. we people from each other or some "other" is at times necessary -- perhaps along political lines in the case of argument.
It's so much easier to criticize others -- and so difficult to explain (as in teaching ESL). We could finally just all fall to the floor laughing about all of this, no?
Monday October 11th 2010, 12:53 PM
Comment by: ladenier (Lansdowne, PA)
I often used "we" when I was placed in the position of disability advocate in my church after starting a support group which eventually grew into a disability ministry. I used it because I didn't think that my opinion would not be accepted and so used we to include the community of people with disabilities in the church. I was chastised once for using it. As my reputation grew I found it easier to use I instead of we, except where I knew absolutely that the community was of that opinion.
I am ashamed of having misused "we" instead of I and have learned my lesson.
-lad
Friday October 22nd 2010, 6:30 PM
Comment by: Federico E. (Camuy, PR)
I know this is late, but the use of "one", which Joyce brought up, is also a handful. I was just reminded of this discussion by John Dominic Crossan's The Historical Jesus (1991), where he analyzes one: " one [...] usually means everyone, but, especially in arch and elitist British usage, means exclusively the 'I' of the speaker. [...] If I say, in American English, 'One always protects a child,' I mean that everyone should do so and thereby, of course, include myself within that generality. If I say, in British English, 'One always flies the Concorde,' I mean that I, or at most all those with the good taste to be like me, always do so. In the former case my 'I' is included but in no way emphasized; in the latter it is personally or corporately exclusive and emphatically underlined" (p. 242).

I kept meaning to ask, Ben, if there is a term for the use of "one" as there is for the use of "we" ( nosism). Unism, perhaps? (It's not in the OED.)

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