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· "We Hold These Truths" on the First-Person Plural ·

"Only presidents, editors and people with tapeworm have the right to use the editorial 'we,'" Mark Twain once said — apparently ending discussion on the pronoun "we." We beg to differ here, since whatever I might say plurally you might of course interpret singularly, and vice versa. One doesn't have to be George W. Bush to know as much since, whether Texan or not, you-all and we-all are both, of course, "plural."

Take, for instance, these uses of the first-person plural "we":

The Principal Uses of the Pronoun "We"

  • "We" as a familiar rhetorical agent, including writer and reader ("We must, of course, both agree").
  • "We" as the spokesperson for a group, "the editorial we" ("We [The National Review, The Nation, AARP] endorse presidential candidates").
  • "We" as a representative of a group, possibly excluding the reader ("We Republicans," "We Democrats," "We Geezers").
  • "We" as humankind ("We are all doomed").

Now don't get me wrong. Like President George W. Bush, we might, by law, be pluralized someday into office — moving from obscurity into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue through a rare vote count in an election. But anyone might still agree that we might have a long way to go, especially when measured stylistically by the most honored of American presidents, Abraham Lincoln.

Consider, for instance, these two paragraphs from a student essay on "The Gettysburg Address" — an essay analyzing President Lincoln's subtle shadings of the plural pronoun in his dedication of a battlefield cemetery (a rhetorical task sometimes, I think, of necessity falling upon presidents):

Lincoln's second paragraph not only locates the ceremony temporally and geographically in the midst of "a great civil war" and on "a great battlefield of that war," but in relation to an ambiguously specified "we," a pronoun referring to a much larger audience than that physically present. The word is enormously complex, for its most obvious referent initially shifts from all the citizens of the nation only to those present in Lincoln's audience. To illustrate, the first instance of "we" in his second paragraph ("we are engaged in a great civil war") refers to the nation as a whole, while the second, third, and fourth instances ("We are met on a great battlefield," "We have come to dedicate . . . ," and ". . . we should do this") refer only to Lincoln's own battlefield audience.

Admittedly, Lincoln's contraction of pronominal reference is a subtle one, yet his subtlety is what effectively blurs the referencing of "we" so that, on the one hand, "we" — the audience — might be present not just at the ceremony but at a genuine war (the great "testing"), and on the other, so that "we" — citizens — might also be present at the ceremony (hearing Lincoln's words and sharing his grief). The effect of such pronominal contraction is essentially to mythologize the ceremony, to make it much larger than life, to expand its importance beyond that of any single ceremony, any single battle, perhaps any single war. Obviously, Lincoln's final sentence ("It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this") becomes thereby a powerful, sympathetic acknowledgment not only of his own mourning, but also that of his audience and that, equally, of his entire American nation.

Having heard George W. Bush's lengthy State-of-the-Union speech last week, we might ask if anyone serves us now as a good president, editor, or "tapeworm" even. Happily, with Thomas Jefferson still, we might all fittingly say: "We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . "

Properly speaking (sotto voce), it is, of course, our challenge.


But we might be mindful of The Underground Grammarian's fine caveat on "we," as marked in his eloquent last volume, The Gift of Fire:

In trying to keep your mind clear, it is always a good idea to be on the lookout for the pronoun "we." If "fat men" make up a category too big and shapeless for us to say anything accurate about, we is clearly much larger, and, unfortunately, not at all shapeless. Except where some defined context limits it to exactly these or those of us, we has to be all of us. Every one. And people who make moral propositions have a way of talking about we, and making thus the same kind of worthless statement that I can make by talking about fat men.

And, because we is everybody, it is nobody. It is simply not a person, not a center of consciousness that can think and feel and do, and is therefore capable of no one of those acts named by the verbs that go with the statement "Only a person can . . ."

His ellipital reference I'll let you discover, from his impressive third chapter, "The Land of We All."

Posted by Styles on January 26, 2004 02:19 PM

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