In Modern English, we is a plural, first-person pronoun.
In Standard Modern English, we has six distinct shapes for five word forms:
- we: the nominative (subjective) form
- us and 's: the accusative (objective; also called the 'oblique'.: 146 ) form
- our: the dependent genitive (possessive) form
- ours: the independent genitive (possessive) form
- ourselves: the reflexive form
There is also a distinct determiner we as in we humans aren't perfect, which some people consider to be just an extended use of the pronoun.
We has been part of English since Old English, having come from Proto-Germanic *wejes, from PIE *we-. Similarly, us was used in Old English as the accusative and dative plural of we, from PIE *nes-. The following table shows the old English first-person plural and dual pronouns:
By late Middle English the dual form was lost and the dative and accusative had merged.: 117 The ours genitive can be seen as early as the 12th century. Ourselves replaced original construction we selfe, us selfum in the 15th century, so that, by century's end, the Middle English forms of we had solidified into those we use today.: 120
We is not generally seen as participating in the system of gender. In Old English, it certainly didn't. Only third-person pronouns had distinct masculine, feminine, and neuter gender forms.: 117 But by the 17th century, that old gender system, which also marked gender on common nouns and adjectives, had disappeared, leaving only pronoun marking. At the same time, a new relative pronoun system was developing that eventually split between personal relative who and impersonal relative which. This is seen as a new personal / non-personal (or impersonal) gender system.: 1048 As a result, some scholars consider we to belong to the personal gender, along with who.
We can appear as a subject, object, determiner or predicative complement. The reflexive form also appears as an adjunct.
- Subject: We're there; us being there; our being there; we planned for ourselves to be there.
- Object: They saw us; She pointed them to us; We though about ourselves.
- Predicative complement: They have become us; We eventually felt we had become ourselves.
- Dependent determiner: We reached our goals; We humans aren't perfect; Give it to us students.
- Independent determiner: This is ours.
- Adjunct: We did it ourselves.
The contracted object form 's is only possible after the special let of let's do that.
Pronouns rarely take dependents, but it is possible for we to have many of the same kind of dependents as other noun phrases.
- Relative clause modifier: we who arrived late
- Determiner: Not a lot of people know the real us.
- Adjective phrase modifier: Not a lot of people know the real us.
- Adverb phrase external modifier: not even us
We's referents generally must include the speaker, along with other persons. A few exceptional cases, which include nosism, are presented below. We is always definite and specific.
The royal we, or majestic plural (pluralis majestatis), is sometimes used by a person of high office, such as a monarch, earl, or pope. It has singular semantics.
The editorial we is a similar phenomenon, in which an editorial columnist in a newspaper or a similar commentator in another medium refers to themselves as we when giving their opinion. Here, the writer casts themselves in the role of spokesperson: either for the media institution who employs them, or on behalf of the party or body of citizens who agree with the commentary. The reference is not explicit, but is generally consistent with first-person plural.
The author's we, or pluralis modestiae, is a practice referring to a generic third person as we (instead of one or the informal you):
- By adding four and five, we obtain nine.
- We are therefore led also to a definition of "time" in physics. — Albert Einstein
We in this sense often refers to "the reader and the author" because the author often assumes that the reader knows and agrees with certain principles or previous theorems for the sake of brevity (or, if not, the reader is prompted to look them up). This practice is discouraged by some academic style guides because it fails to distinguish between sole authorship and co-authorship. Again, the reference is not explicit, but is generally consistent with first-person plural.
Inclusive and exclusive we
Some languages distinguish between inclusive we, which includes both the speaker and the addressee(s), and exclusive we, which excludes the addressee(s). English does not make this distinction grammatically, though we can have both inclusive and exclusive semantics.
Imperative let's or let us allows imperatives to be inclusive.: 925 Compare:
- Take this outside. (exclusive, 2nd person)
- Let's take this outside. (inclusive, 1st person)
We is used sometimes in place of you to address a second party: A doctor may ask a patient: "And how are we feeling today?". A waiter may ask a client: "What are we in the mood for?"
The membership we is a simultaneous reference to the individual, and to the collective of which the individual is a member. If ants or hive bees could use English, they might use the pronoun we almost exclusively. Human cultures can be categorized as communal or individualist; the membership we aligns more with a communal culture. The speaker, or thinker, expresses ideas with awareness of both themselves and the collective of other members. If language constrains or liberates thinking, then using the membership we may impact our ability to understand, empathize, and bond with others. The extent of inclusion when using the membership we is loosely definite; the group may be others of the same village, nation, species, or planet. The following two examples show how meaning changes subtly depending on whether I or we is used. When using the membership we, the reader or speaker is automatically drawn into the collective, and the change in viewpoint is significant:
- If I consume too much, I will run out of resources. If we consume too much, we will run out of resources.
- The more I learn, the more I should question. The more we learn, the more we should question.
According to the OED, the following pronunciations are used:
- ^ a b c d e Huddleston, Rodney; Pullum, Geoffrey K. (2002). The Cambridge grammar of the English language. Cambridge University Press.
- ^ Lass, Roger, ed. (1999). The Cambridge history of the English Language: Volume III 1476–1776. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- ^ "we | Origin and meaning of we by Online Etymology Dictionary". www.etymonline.com. Retrieved 2021-03-24.
- ^ "us | Origin and meaning of us by Online Etymology Dictionary". www.etymonline.com. Retrieved 2021-03-24.
- ^ a b c d Blake, Norman, ed. (1992). The Cambridge history of the English Language: Volume II 1066–1476. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- ^ "our | Origin and meaning of our by Online Etymology Dictionary". www.etymonline.com. Retrieved 2021-03-24.
- ^ "who - Middle English Compendium". quod.lib.umich.edu. Retrieved 2021-03-20.
- ^ "which - Middle English Compendium". quod.lib.umich.edu. Retrieved 2021-03-20.
- ^ "editorial we". TheFreeDictionary.com.
- ^ Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (4 ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. 1994. p. 30. ISBN 1557982414.
- ^ Blanpain, Kristin (2008). Academic Writing in the Humanities and Social Sciences: A Resource for Researchers. Leuven: Voorburg. p. 43.
- ^ Wallwork, Adrian (2014). User Guides, Manuals, and Technical Writing: A Guide to Professional English. New York: Springer. p. 153.
- ^ Goldbort, Robert (2006). Writing for Science. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. p. 18.
- ^ "Difference Between Communal and Individualistic Cultures". 17 February 2016.