The Case Against First Person Plural

I’ve been very annoyed by the rise of first person plural. The use of “we” is an unfortunate component of McSweeney’s house style that shows no signs of waning. Several sharp, witty people use it — indeed, cannot refrain from stopping — and I shake my head in sorrow. Unless you’re a schizophrenic or you’re writing on behalf of a group of people (academics, a committee, or some giddy ensemble of lunatics), or you’re relaying an anecdote with another person in the room, there just isn’t a damn compelling reason to use “we” in place of “I.” “We” implies one of two possibilities: either that the reader and the writer are one (a legitimate use in small doses), or the writer is duking it out with several voices inside her head. But what sane mind can relate to the latter in a tete-a-tete?

“We” implies familiarity, but then it’s a bit like some server killing a good restaurant conversation by announcing, “So how we doing?” The server is likely hustling for tips, but in the worst possible way. The “we” label, accentuated by a perky smile that only digs the blade in deeper, is enough to transform highly rational people into near-barbarians. No one appreciates this stroke of familiarity before even so much as a “Hello,” but this doesn’t stop marketing zealots from communicating this way at conferences and seminars.

And yet the same concerns don’t apply on page.

Here’s the opening pargraph to James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Ring Twice — in my view, one of the finest examples of first-person clarity:

They threw me off the hay truck about noon. I had swung on the night before, down at the border, and as soon as I got up there under the canvas, I went to sleep. I needed plenty of that, after three weeks in Tia Juana, and I was still getting it when they pulled off to one side to let the engine cool. Then they saw a foot sticking out and threw me off. I tried some comical stuff, but all I got was a dead pan, so that gag was out. They gave me a cigarette, though, and I hiked down the road to find something to eat.

Great clean stuff, ain’t it? You’re immediately hooked into Frank’s world. You know that he’s a drifter, that he has some experience on the road, and that he’s rumbled a bit.

Now let’s see how the same passage plays out in first person plural:

They threw us off the hay truck about noon. We had swung on the night before, down at the border, and as soon as we got up there under the canvas, we went to sleep. We needed plenty of that, after three weeks in Tia Juana, and we were still getting it when they pulled off to one side to let the engine cool. Then they saw our feet sticking out and threw us off. We tried some comical stuff, but all we got was a dead pan, so that gag was out. They gave us a cigarette, though, and we hiked down the road to find something to eat.

Infuriating from the first sentence, no? It comes across as consummate bullshit, rather than the authenticity we saw in first person singular. From the get-go, the reader has nothing to relate to. Because the narrator feels the need to be a pushy wiseacre. The passage fails because the reader isn’t invited to become part of an adventure. He’s forced.

So I implore all people who use first person plural: Since when the hell are you Queen Fucking Victoria? I double-dare all columnists, writers, storytellers, hack journalists, essayists, bloggers and related parties to make the hard choice of sticking with first person singular. Resist the temptation the same way that you avoid telling a story in second person. The output will be clearer and more interesting. And readers will learn to love you more.

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8 Comments

  1. The problem with “the royal we” is that it’s basically serving the purpose that a neutral pronoun does in other languages. Since English, sadly, has no equivalent to the French “on” (or whatever the hell it is in German or other language) we’re stuck with “we”, which though pretentious, sounds less grating and egotistical than “I” does.

    As for 2nd person….99% of the time, it doesn’t work. But when it does, it’s amazing (see David Peace’s NINETEEN EIGHTY THREE for a good demonstration of that. Hell, just read David Peace!)

  2. Word up dude, I agree with you. Don’t forget “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” for more of that clarity. Everything ever written in this country that is classic is in yr tense. Who else felt it in The Postman when they kiss each other and he bites her tooth out? That it some real shit, in any tense or case or voice, but we can’t really bite a tooth out, can we?

  3. I wonder if its use in some blogs owes more to Zeldman than McSweeney’s.

    To be fair, in certain contexts a ‘we’ can be the warmer, more inclusive pronoun:

    As for how exactly life began, I just don’t know.

    As for how exactly life began, we just don’t know.

    As for how exactly life began, they just don’t know.

    As for how exactly life began, only He knows.

    As for how exactly life began, you just don’t know. But I do. Suckah!

  4. “WE” allows “me” to get away with not taking responsibility for my own thoughts and actions.
    (Interesting how the W is M upside-down)

  5. Personally, I find “we” a lot more pretentious than “I.” At least with “I,” the reader can count upon a solid emotional record: “I was pissed. I pissed my pants. I got pissed after drinking too much tequilla last night.”

    Perhaps what English style needs is more camaraderie: “Hank and I were pissed. Hank pissed his pants, while I got pissed after drinking too much tequilla last night.”

    In fact, I’d suggest that instead of using the royal “we,” perhaps writers aspiring for a collective chronicle can invent a fictitious persona. Someone along the lines of a Hank or a Mary who can be counted upon to keep the narrator in check. I’d have no problem with that. Really.

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