A “We” Problem

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In informal writing, the use of the first-person plural pronoun “we” is commonplace, as in, We tend to use language willy-nilly when writing informally. Some of you might not think twice about my use of “we” in that last statement (which is fine), but some of you might be saying, “Wait a minute. Hold on. Whether I am writing informally or not, I am always paying attention to the language that I use. Words matter. How dare you presume to know what I think?”

And thus the problem with using what’s called the editorial “we” becomes clear. When using the editorial “we,” the writer is speaking not only for the writer but also for others as well–folks who may or may not be part of the group that “we” entails. Instead of writing We tend to use language willy-nilly when writing informally,” write Some writers use language willy-nilly when writing informally. Using “some writers” in place of the more general and all-encompassing “we” tempers the statement because the word choice is more specific. Indeed, regardless of the relative informality of “we,” what is worth keeping in mind is using the most precise language possible. Instead of using “we,” which may confuse readers, use a more specific word.

I recall reading a paper pre-pandemic by a female student who was arguing that women who choose to breastfeed their babies have every right to do so in public and should not feel ashamed. The student wrote (and here I am quoting from memory) “We have every right to breastfeed our babies on park benches, at youth sports events, and in restaurants” to which I thought, Me? I’m a male. Did you mean to include me in the “We”? 

If you think about the rhetorical situation, the writer would not be arguing her view to an audience that agrees with her, so the inclusion of “we” created a confusing moment in the paper–especially if you are male! The writer could have avoided the confusion entirely by using a more specific word or phrase for “we” such as “Women who choose to breastfeed.”  

Many are taught not to use first person pronouns at all in their academic writing, and the kind of miscue in this example is a good reason why such lessons are taught. What does APA Style have to say about the editorial “we”? APA Style advises writers to adopt a more formal approach to writing and avoid the editorial “we” when referring to people in general. 

Another awkward usage instance of editorial “we” worth discussing is in a situation where the writer–a singular entity–refers to oneself in the plural, as in this example: We will discuss the merits of a green burial given an ever-increasing human population and less and less earth. Why would the author use “we” in this sentence if it is only the one author who will do the discussing? As a result of this sloppy use of “we,” the sentence lacks clarity and may leave readers scratching their heads. 

That said, if, however, a work has more than one author, then using “we” would make sense because “we” would be referring to the coauthors. APA Style makes this point clear on its website, writing, “If you are writing a paper with coauthors, use the pronoun ‘we’ to refer to yourself and your coauthors together.”

The issue is not limited to just “we”; in fact, other first-person plural pronouns such as “us” and “our” are equally problematic. Take a loaded sentence like this one: It’s up to us to make sure our children have all the same opportunities we had. 

As a reader, you may wonder, what if I don’t have children? How does the sentence relate to me and my experiences? The statement also makes an assumption about those who are part of “we” in that, apparently, those folks all had the “same opportunities.” The lack of precision in the sentence is troubling from a writing teacher perspective, and from any other perspective, the sentence illustrates the issues related to using “we” and other first-person plural pronouns. So how might this last sentence be revised for greater specificity and precision?

Here’s one revision: Society must ensure that today’s youth have the same opportunities as previous generations. 

I like the idea of pointing the finger at society, but the word “society” is not terribly precise. How about this sentence? The community needs to take steps to ensure that young people have the same opportunities as previous generations. In this revised sentence, the confusing use of  both “us” and “our” are eliminated, and the statement is no longer making assumptions about the audience by using the imprecise “we.” While writers certainly will use pronouns–even pronouns like “we,” “us,” and “our”–the key is for the writer to pay attention to the language used and make sure such pronoun usage doesn’t create unintended confusion. In many cases, being more specific with the word choice makes all of the difference. 

Now in fairness to writers who inadvertently use “we” in confusing ways, the intention is strategic in that “we” is being used to establish some kind of common ground with readers in a we’re-all-in-this-together sort of way that in some contexts does work, but which often misses its mark, so it’s a good idea to avoid this language pitfall if at all possible. We may not be language experts, but we can follow some practical advice. After all, what else can we do?

Until next week–

Kurtis Clements

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