Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

We, We, We, All the Way Home

Posted by Neal on January 10, 2005

Now it’s thank-you note season, and I haven’t even begun any of mine yet because I’ve been helping Doug and Adam write theirs. When I’m helping just one of of them, I usually just ask him to tell me something that he liked about whatever gift we’re writing about, and then I write down what he says, leaving in all the unusual syntax, idiosyncratic word choices, and improperly regularized plurals and past tenses. Then he signs it and we’re done. To make things easier, Doug and Adam work together with me on a single note for any gift that they receive jointly. But this method brings its own complication, one that I call the “first-person Christmas newsletter identity crisis.”

You’re reading a Christmas newsletter, and let’s say it’s a pretty good one–not one of those that makes you grind your teeth, with two or three or four exclamation points at the end of every sentence, but one that straightforwardly fills you in on what your friends have been doing that you didn’t know about because you never bother to call them like you’ve been meaning to. It talks about what the kids have been up to; so far, so good. Then it starts talking about the adults: “We’ve been remodeling the house,” etc. Still OK. Then it zeroes in on one of them: “Marsha is still trying to write a novel…” Aha, you think. It must be John writing this. We means “Marsha and me, John.” But then when you get to the part about John, it says, “John got a new job in May.” What? Not, “I got a new job in May”? Who’s talking to me here?

I don’t know of a good solution to that problem. It bugs me in the letters I read, but it regularly appears in the ones that we send out. It’s also the problem with a joint thank-you note from Doug and Adam. I can’t have I switch referents from Doug to Adam halfway through the letter without an awkward parenthetical identification of the speaker. So to avoid that, I try to get statements that they can agree on, and express them with a nicely ambiguous we.

As I was trying to get such a statement from Adam today, it occurred to me that this we appearing in the thank-you note was neither of the kinds of we that I’m accustomed to thinking about. One is inclusive we–second person+first person singular: you and I. The other is exclusive we–third person+first person singular: he/she/they and I. This is the meaning I expect when I read Christmas newsletters, and the ambiguity rests on whether the first person component of the meaning is John or Marsha. But the meaning in the joint thank-you note, and now that I think about it, the probable meaning in the confusing Christmas newsletters, is actually first person+first person: I (one speaker) and I (another speaker). When the note says, “We’ve been watching the video you gave us,” we doesn’t mean, “Doug and I,” since that implies only Adam is speaking. Likewise, it doesn’t mean, “Adam and I.” It means, “I, Doug, and I, Adam”. How neat is that?

This meaning hasn’t been in any of the grammar books I’ve read, probably because it only comes into play in special situations like these. It is, however, in the grammar book I looked in just now. CGEL recognizes the meaning on p. 1465:

Usually, the set consists of a single speaker together with one or more others…. It is, however, perfectly possible for the group to contain a plurality of speakers…. In the case of speech this use involves speaking in unison, as in singing, praying, chanting, and the like…. In the case of writing, it may be a matter of joint signatories, of a letter, contract, petition, etc….

They don’t give a name for this kind of we, so I’ll call it multiple-speaker we. What I’m wondering now is whether the single-speaker/multiple-speaker distinction crosscuts the inclusive/exclusive distinction. Are there cases of multiple-speaker inclusive (“me, and, me, and you”), and multiple-speaker exclusive (“me, and me, and them”)? Let me know if you see any!

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