We the pretentious

A particular pet peeve of mine is academics who write sole-authored papers as “we”. So I was amused when A Word a Day dropped this into my inbox this afternoon.

nosism (NO-siz-em) noun
The use of ‘we’ in referring to oneself.
[From Latin nos (we).]

As it’s often used by editors, it’s also known as the “editorial we”. It’s also called “the royal we” owing to its frequent use by royalty.

Mark Twain once said, “Only kings, presidents, editors, and people with tapeworms have the right to use the editorial ‘we’.”

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17 Responses to We the pretentious

  1. cba says:

    I have to agree. I used to try to dissuade my honours students from the “royal we” but to no avail. Even my favourite “are you trying to imply this is joint work with your thesis adviser” didn’t dent their enthusiasm for “we”.

  2. Damien Eldridge says:

    It doesn’t bother me and I am not sure why it bothers anyone else. It is not distracting, since you are presumably not thinking about the number of authors when you are reading the paper itself. Furthermore, even if the paper has a single author, it is quite possible to interpret the we as referring to the author and the reader.

  3. conrad says:

    Actually, it doesn’t bother me, and I do it sporadically. I’m with Damien on the reason — I also thought it was done simply for historical stylistic reasons in some areas.

  4. harry clarke says:

    Isn’t it sometimes ‘we’ in the sense of ‘I am taking you with me’ rather than we in the sense of ‘me+me+me+me+….’. Wethinks.

  5. Sinclair Davidson says:

    It depends. Sometimes the writer is taking the reader on a journey and “we” travel together. Other times though it is pure pretentiousness. If the author writes in the third person passive, then it’s just bad writing.

  6. I’m with Andrew L. Either it is inaccurate – and if the solo author doesn’t know that he/she is only one person can he/she be trusted to get anything else right – or as Harry implies it is presumtuous, implying that the reader already agrees with the author.

  7. Sinclair Davidson says:

    Andrew N. you are both an enlightened reader and, more importantly, editor. We, mere, humble, writers – especially in the peer review process – are at the mercy of philistines and barbarians. Often a reviewer might comment on the “I” and prefer the “we”. Similarly, examiners of theses often comment on things such as “I” and not “we”. Indeed, it has happened that examiners say that a research student using “I” is pretentious.

  8. Leopold says:

    I agree with Sinclair above. If you do it in the sense he mentions, it’s okay.

    And he’s right that ‘I’ gets whacked more often than ‘we’ by markers.

  9. Damien Eldridge says:

    There are almost certainly historical reasons for avoiding the use of I. I seem to recall being taught not to use first-person personal pronouns (is that the term?) in essays at school. As a result, I suspect that the use of I is more distracting than the use of we. I think the best interpretation is to think of it as including both author and reader, but allowing the reader to disagree if he so wishes. This is probably not the original rationalisation, but it is now the one with which I am most comfortable.

  10. Vic says:

    I don’t think we should get our knickers into a knot about this – or should we?

  11. Patrick says:

    I agree with Sinclair that it is almost invariably bad writing. I even prefer ‘one’!

  12. I before me, except after we?

  13. More on the academic ‘we’ here.

  14. christine says:

    You’re never going to convert the users of ‘we’ to ‘I’, I think. And which is worse (1) ‘we use method X’, or (2) ‘the present paper uses method X’, or (3) ‘method X is used in this paper’? Coz those are the alternatives with personal-responsibility avoiders. My personal preference ordering: ‘I’, then (1), (3) and (2). Active inanimate objects freak me out. With ‘we’, you can just pretend it’s a coauthored paper in which case ‘we’ is not bad writing, where the other two options are bad in pretty much any case.

    To be fair to writers, and consistent with Sinclair, I have a friend who consistently edits out any personal pronouns in favour of passive voice in order to get past editors. It also seems to me there’s a bit of a generational shift going on in writing styles. ‘I’ is certainly more fashionable than it was 20 years ago.

  15. “It also seems to me there’s a bit of a generational shift going on in writing styles.”

    I think this is right across usage generally. For example, older scholars almost always use ‘data’ as a plural, ‘These data show…’. Younger people – as with I/we often showing more grammatical sense I think – recognise that in English ‘data’ is frequently used as a mass noun, and therefore should be used as a singular, ‘This data shows…’

    As an editor, though, I let authors choose how to use ‘data’, but cut out ‘we’ for single authors.

  16. Tut tut Andrew!!! Data is plural, datum is singular. There is no ambiguity here!!! ;) While I am at it, one billion is one million million, not one thousand million!!!

  17. Damien – Further explanation here.

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