Ben Zimmer, the heir to the late William Safire’s On Language column in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, made waves a few weeks ago with his ruminations on the editorial we.
That kind of expression is in evidence when, for instance, I write something like “We at TWEED…” TWEED happens to be a one-woman endeavor, but even if I had actual tweedy conspirators, that usage would still be an editorial we. I’m editorializing, speaking for the organization.
The royal we is perhaps more well known. It’s a majestic grandiloquence, as in a queen saying, “We shall perform our daily ablutions now.” That’s not a real plural. The queen just means she’s going to take a bath.
Zimmer explains that the editorial we, like the royal we, is exclusive in the sense that the addressee is not included in the pronoun. But there are also inclusive ways to stretch the meaning of the word we.
Academic writers are known to use we to suggest common ground with readers: “We think of Freud as the father of psychoanalysis.” Do we? Who’s we? At any rate, from that basis the writer can move to the next point, “We are less inclined to think of Sylvia Plath as the mother of self-administrated psychoanalysis, but that was exactly her role.” The we establishes a baseline to which the rather outlandish thesis can be tethered.
More commonly still is the use of we to trace the objectives of an argumentative piece: “We have seen that hypothesis A fails, but hypothesis B still stands.” It’s a professorial tone, which can be a good thing.
We can be a workaround for writers who want to avoid the dreaded second-person pronouns: you, your, yours. It can also mean “humanity in general.” I’ve also seen it used, presumably, to steer clear of passive constructions: “Fathers are treated with reverence” becomes “We treat our fathers with reverence.”
Clearly, the vague we serves as a neat workaround in some situations. But the pitfalls of these approaches are becoming clear as well. Who treats their fathers with reverence? Everyone? It’s not a good idea to lump every reader together. Some readers may be estranged from their fathers. The writer could have then lost some trust from those readers.
Beyond basic tact, academic writers should be aware of what the major style guides have to say about the editorial and authorial uses of we.
APA is most particular on the issue of first-person pronouns. In § 3.09, the Publication Manual advises, “restrict your use of we to refer only to yourself and your coauthors (use I if you are the sole author of the paper.” The reasoning is that “broader uses of we may leave your readers wondering to whom you are referring; instead, substitute an appropriate noun or clarify your usage.”
This official APA style blog post emphasizes that the whole point is clarity. Pronouns should have clear antecedents.
The MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing has little to say on the subject of vague first-person pronouns, but it’s interesting to note that the book itself uses the editorial we in several places.
MLA does not take the same hard line as APA, which reserves first-person pronouns only for the authors of a piece, but I think we (that is, me, Katie Van Heest, and you, my faithful reader) can assume that MLA concurs with APA in that the antecedents of pronouns should be as clear as possible.
Chicago is also not as exercised about the problem as is APA, but Chicago has more to say on the matter than MLA does. In § 5.45 of the 16th edition, Chicago explains, “we, you, and they can be used indefinitely—that is, without antecedents.” Also, “an individual who is speaking for a group” may use the editorial we.
Summary: Writers following APA style should be careful not to use first-person pronouns to mean anyone but the author(s) of the study. Everyone, though, should be sure that readers can reasonably infer the antecedent of first-person pronouns such as we.
Otherwise, we are lost.