Created | Updated Apr 12, 2005
'We' is the first person subject pronoun, plural in construction and generally means 'I and a group that includes me', but nothing is ever that simple. Let us learn by example.
'We are not pleased.'
This sentence can be interpreted in any one of seven basic ways:
- This person and I are not pleased.
- You and I are not pleased.
- You, this person and I are not pleased.
- This group, of which I am a part and you are not, is not pleased.
- The public in general is not pleased.
- I am not pleased.
- You are not pleased.
The Literal We
The first four instances of 'we' can easily be mistaken for one another. If someone says 'We've got tickets to see Bruce Springsteen' you can't, without further background information, tell whether you're being told that:
- You and the speaker have tickets.
- The tickets belong to the speaker and a group that includes you.
- They're in the possession of two or more people (including the speaker) who are not you.
This gets confusing at times. It's recommended, in this situation, to say not, 'We do?!' but instead, 'What?' If it turns out that it's a situation where you aren't included, you will save the speaker the embarrassment of saying, 'Oh... er, I didn't mean you', and yourself the embarrassment of hearing it. The only thing you can be certain of is that the speaker will be at the Bruce Springsteen concert.
The Editorial We
Known as the 'Editorial We' because it's used by writers to maintain an impersonal tone, this is rarely encountered anywhere but in print. It can mean 'all of us conscientious people in the world', or 'the entity I represent'.
When, while reading your morning paper, you read, 'We must take a stand!' then the author was addressing you and all the other readers.
If, however, you see, 'We apologise for the error in yesterday's column' then the author is not in fact urging you to apologise for his mistake, but speaking on behalf of the entire newspaper staff.
The Royal We
'We' can also mean I, which is obviously very silly. This use of we is meant to be used by sovereigns, but is more often used by common people to make fun of sovereigns.
Should you hear someone say, 'We are ready for our bath now' do not assume that anything interesting is going on. Quite the contrary, it's most likely that someone pretentious is about to have a bath, alone.
The Condescending We
This final form of 'we' is usually reserved for the interrogative sentence format such as 'Are we ready for bed?'. It's something your mother may have asked you when you were very small. She wasn't really going to bed, though. Just you, and perhaps your sister. Why people insist on saying 'we' to children instead of the much more straightforward 'you' when they do in fact mean 'you' is a complete mystery.