One is not amused
November 6, 2004 6:00 PM   Subscribe

"One is not amused..." Personal pronoun, or third person generalisation? [MI]

Having had a (drunken) discussion about this tonight, I hope that MeFites can help put an argument to rest about this specific use of the word "one"...

I take it to be an archaic, or at the least affected, personal pronoun - "One believes this to be the case" meaning "I believe this to be the case."

The drinkers at my table believed it to be a third person generalisation: "If one drinks too much beer, one will get drunk" meaning, "If a person drinks too much beer, they will get drunk."

I disagree with their definition, reading the second example as "If I drink too much beer, I will get drunk, though not everyone else may."

So, does any have any cites or references which can prove one way or the other - is "one" an archaic, affected personal pronoun substitute, or is it shorthand for "a person" in general - a third person pronoun that matches its third person construction?
posted by benzo8 to Writing & Language (9 answers total)
In the specific construction you cite, I'd call it a Britishism, perhaps mainly archaic. "One" referred to directly is first person singular; "we" (as in "We are not amused.") first person plural.
posted by vers at 6:29 PM on November 6, 2004

The "if" clause in the second example you gave about drinking makes it a conditional statement, which changes everything, at least in my rather formal family. I agree with you on the first quote, and your friends on the second.
posted by vers at 6:32 PM on November 6, 2004

Depends a) on context and b) whether you are English (one) or American (we):

1st [declarative]: "[We don't/one doesn't] do that sort of thing in public."
2nd [interogative]: "[We don't/one doesn't] run with scissors, do [we/one]?"
3rd [declarative]: "Hang on, Joe, [We/one] get cranky if [we/one] haven't had our diaper changed in a while."

Obviously there are other vatiations, including the famous "Royal we" (because the regent is the kingdom, when she speaks she speaks for the whole nation, and hence uses 'we'). So officially I'd say its a third person pronoun, but colloquially has lots of uses.

I think the main use isn't archaic at all: it is to establish an imaginary actor ("one") whom one can bounce ideas off of, especially ideas about decorum and behavior. The statement "One doesn't do those sorts of things in England" not only chastises transgression, but does so in a way as to not directly confront the transgressor, and thus maintain the honor of all involved. Though perhaps archaic in its connection to the maintenance of aristocratic distance, I think such phrases continue to play an important role in civil discourse, especially as related to boundary.
posted by ChasFile at 6:49 PM on November 6, 2004

Of course, in addition to being civil, the use of phrases like "one does x in polite society" and "people think y about me" and "we are getting z" instead of "you should stop doing x" and "I am y" and "he is z" is indirect, sloppy, and cowardly. One should not use phrases like "one should not use phrases like."
posted by ChasFile at 6:57 PM on November 6, 2004

"One" is the impersonal pronoun. Lots of languages have one, or have a way of expressing action without specifying the actor.

Strictly speaking, an impersonal pronoun can mean I (first person) you (2nd person) or he/she/it 3rd person, in any or all combinations.

One may find this ambiguity is useful in many situations. One may also find ones interlocutors become confused or annoyed if one overdoes it.

Now, there is or was a tendency in certain quarters to use "one" intead of "I", partly to politely de-emphasise the speaker, partly as an in-group or class marker, and partly I think for sheer amusement value. However, "one" as a synonym for "I" is a feature of certain speakers' English, but it is not a rule. I know I'm veering dangerously into presecriptivism here and languagehat will come and administer my punishment later.

Put it this way: in the mouth of P G Wodehouse character, "I" can be reliably subsituted for "one". However, this isn't regular usage for anyone anymore, and it wasn't standard usage even then (the early part of the 20th century).

In your second example, you are wrong, and your friends are right.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 8:09 PM on November 6, 2004

Yes, your friends are right about the second example. About the first example, what you're really doing is imitating the sort of snide co-opting of the use your friends were talking about; the speaker used 'one' as if to suggest it could be anyone, but also uses it in such a way that it's perfectly clear that the speaker is referring to him/herself.

Basically, your friends are right.
posted by bingo at 10:12 PM on November 6, 2004

In England, 'one' tends to be used as a form of ironic understatement. On being awarded the Nobel Prize: 'one can't help being rather pleased ..' On narrowly escaping death in a car crash: 'naturally one feels a little shaken ..' On being seriously pissed off at Bush's re-election: 'I was teaching Latin today, and was reminded by the exercise under consideration that the Romans managed without W. One so wishes that more recent empires had been similarly self-denying.' One of the reasons why the English like this sort of ironic humour is that Americans are thought to be incapable of understanding it.

However, it is also a standing joke in England that the upper classes are incapable of expressing their true feelings. As the poet says:

Suave Politeness, tempering bigot Zeal,
Corrected I believe to One does feel ..

And 'one' is sometimes used as a way of parodying this tendency: e.g. (Prince of Wales voice) "One gets up in the morning, one gets dressed, one eats one's boiled egg, one brushes one's teeth .." (/Prince of Wales voice). I have always assumed that this is what Fats Waller is doing at the end of 'Your Feet's Too Big' when he says in a languid drawl, 'your pedal extremities really are obnoxious, one never knows, do one ..?' -- the joke, such as it is, being that the sort of upper-class Englishman who says 'one never knows' will also be incapable of telling someone directly, 'your feet are too big'.
posted by verstegan at 5:11 AM on November 7, 2004

Que hay que hacer para ir a Carnegie Hall?

Hay que practicar.
posted by swift at 6:55 AM on November 7, 2004

Response by poster: Coincidentally enough, we are all living in Spain, and had this discussion in a very nice Spanish bar. Of course, the use of impersonal pronouns in Spanish is common in the third person, but I discounted that as an argument immediately because our discussion was about English...

I'm currently ploughing the "Seems we were both right" furrow in order to save some face, so it's a begrudging "Thanks" to the MeFites who put me straight... ;-)
posted by benzo8 at 9:55 AM on November 7, 2004

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