We are not Amused

The word we is a pretty simple one, isn’t it? You’re not going to get confused about what it means, or how to spell it, are you? Probably not, but what about how it’s used in the title there?

You might know that this a quote famously attributed to Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom (though the sheer number of stories about when and why she said it suggest that she may never have uttered the statement). You might also know that in this sentence she’s speaking about herself. Except she also wasn’t, which is why she used we. See, it is confusing!

Using we in this sense is of course known as the royal we, or, much more impressively, the majestic plural. It’s probably best known from the Queen Victoria quote, but has been used for centuries by monarchs and other figures of similar power such as popes. The basic idea behind the use of the majestic plural is a pretty simple. The person using it is speaking not just in their capacity as an individual, but as a representative of a large group, such as the entire population of a nation, or all members of a major religion.

There’s also, no doubt, a deliberate distancing formality involved too. Many languages continue to use plural forms instead of singular to convey a sense of formality and politeness (e.g. using vous instead of tu in French). English used to have such a convention, but lost it gradually, though I think was a continuation of such forms long after they became standard forms.

Not of course that we use the majestic plural much nowadays anyway. It would be seen as incredibly pretentious and arrogant even from a monarch. In 1989, Margaret Thatcher, then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, was roundly criticised for telling the press that we have become a grandmother.

At least now we don’t have any heads of state in the world egotistical enough to use the majestic plural.

The majestic plural is an example of a larger linguistic convention known as nosism: using we to refer to oneself in a more general sense. This is much more common than you might think.

The editorial we, in which an editorial columnist in a newspaper uses we to imagine himself as part of a group who agree with his argument, is not so widespread anymore.

What’s still quite common though, is the author’s we, or pluralis modestiae. We can often find this in mathematical or scientific discourse, e.g….

If we add four and three we get… eleven.

Here we can see how weather patterns are expected to change in the next ten years.

Here we basically means the author and the reader, and is much more inclusive than the majestic plural, assuming as it does that the reader understands what the author is saying.

And lastly there is of course the patronizing teacher’s we, as in:

Why can’t we use the present simple in this case?

What type of word do we need to use here?

I’ve got that we down to a fine art!


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