Using "One" in place of "I"

This morning my wife read this (to us seemingly) bizarre little essay in the local newspaper. In it, the writer recounts an episode in which she was trying to get the attention of a bus driver and he seemed purposefully to be annoying her. What kept my wife (and later me) reading was not the subject matter. Rather it was the strange way in which the writer kept using the word “one” instead of the word “I” (making all necessary grammatical adjustments of course).

I don’t have the article with me and can’t find it online so I can’t give you any direct examples. But it was like this. “One found oneself hanging on for dear life as one was dragged along skating behind the bus,” and “One sighed in frustration at one’s predicament” and so on.

The whole thing read like this. (With one strange exception–she referred to herself as “I” one time at the very beginning of the article.)

One’s questions are a few-fold. One will list two of them as follows, and all other similar or otherwise relevant questions should be assumed to apply as well.

Is this some normal pattern of English usage one has somehow heretofore failed to notice?

If not, then what might this lady have been doing? One remains at a loss as to what exactly she was trying to do with this device.


(BTW One just now realizes that using “one” instead of “I” is something one has seen in isolated cases, but always only in very brief passages usually of a single sentence. Do people normally write longer passages in this way, and one has simply missed them? Alternatively, is this some kind of archaic usage one was not aware of? If so, are there people who still advocate its use, or was this lady probably parodying it? Or something? One wishes one could show you the article one is talking about.)

Not having read the entire article, from what you describe I would say this is an eccentricity designed for comic effect. I have never heard “one” used in place of “I,” only when you might use “you” instead, like I just did. The comic part would be that the writer wrote as though it didn’t really happen, and didn’t happen specifically to her, but it’s ironically clear that it really did. Not exactly a knee-slapper. :slight_smile:

If one didn’t want to get moderated, one could say “one would be a total fucking idiot for thinking such a thing.” If one were to say “you are a total fucking idiot for thinking such a thing,” one would get a moderator warning.

I can’t help but think that it was written by somebody who had some distant memory of being told to “not use ‘I’ in an essay”, and who thought ‘one’ seemed to sound appropriately formal. (That is, of course, suggested on the basis of the recollections as related.)

Hmmm I wouldn’t lose to much sleep over this its probably one Elisabeth Windsor out on one of her gin fuelled excursions

There was at one time the pseudo-grammatical “rule” that one, to be properly modest, should never use the first person pronouns, but rather substitute “one/'s” for them. What it does, however, is to make the writer look pretentious.

Distinguish this, on the other hand, from the entirely appropriate use of “one” as the impersonal pronoun. A statement regarding a person which is true for any person, and which would normally make use of the impersonal “you” in informal writing, is in a more formal style constructed with “one”.

“One must always be careful to avoid unintentionally impugning ignoble motives to one’s hearer.” Telling “you” to avoid doing it comes across as a supercilious judgment that you’ve been doing so and that I am telling you to stop. Stating it with the impersonal “one” turns it into a generalized maxim with no such imputation.

Sometimes it’s used deliberately to convey a sort of mock posh pretension. “Travel on public transport?! With the unwashed masses? One couldn’t possibly do that!”

I remember an embarassing incident at primary school (in the UK), the English teacher asked “Who says “one” ?” I raised my hand “My Mum.” Laughter all around, of course the correct answer was the Queen.

Anyway now I’ve got that trauma out in the open - the way Mum normally uses it is not to avoid saying “I” but to avoid using “you” for generality when there could be some confusion on the part of the listener - to clarify she’s not addressing that person directly or to show she wouldn’t presume to know what her interloctor was thinking.

In case that’s as clear as mud here be examples

Well one often forgets things like that. (to avoid the possibly accusatory "you often etc.)

Yes, one does tend to feel upset when … (while not telling you how you should feel)
This has little to do with the OP I know but it’s an example of how a well educated English lady of a certain age naturally uses “one”. Personally I always thought that the royals’ use of “one” was partially to indicate the role of “the Queen” as opposed to the person “Elizabeth”.

One has to wonder where she got her information as it is just not true and the Queen uses “I” all the time and would use “one” as an impersonal, just like anyone else.

Think she uses one more often in her annual Christmas speeches.

In the example Sailor gave above it would be inappropriate to say:

But one cannot forget that one was crowned Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

In a formal speech to Parliament that would be unbelievably pompous. As you say she uses it more as an impersonal thing - to indicate herself but also anyone else to whom the same thing could happen.

One hates it when it rains

To further this point, sometimes it’s also used to convey a personal reaction that the writer believes would be universal – this usage in particular often underlies a shift from “I” to “one.” I read the quoted text above and found it insightful; one would assume that Polycarp has a good understanding of English usage.

I think it’s a condescending way of replacing “you” or “I” with “any normal person with a lick of common sense and a brain in their head” in a know-it-all way.

How do I turn this computer on?
“You press the power button.” (typical answer)
“One would press the power button.” (condescending ‘duh’ type reply)

How do you get to work?
“I take route 77.” (typical answer)
“One would take route 77.” (condescending ‘duh, is there any other way’ type reply)

Very pretencious. Reminds me of the way Dolores Umbridge would speak.

But that is correct usage for anyone and it is much better to use “one” as a generic than to use “you”. I think it sounds awful when the accused, using the impersonal “you” says to the judge “you know when you are about to sodomize a pig and it starts squealing and you grab it by the balls and then…” etc. I think it is much better to say “when one is about to sodomise a pig…”.

“I hate it when the government raise my taxes” is much stronger and opinionated while “ones hates it when the government raises one’s taxes” is milder, more diluted, as it distributes the position among the many, impersonal, ones.

“I would think the moderator is a douchebag for doing that” is much stronger than “one would think the moderator is a douchebag for doing that”.

“One could argue it is inappropriate.”

We are glad we have not succumbed to this preposterous affectation.

Did the article really use the word oneself? If not, I would have guessed that maybe somebody proofreading it meant to replace all the #"1"s with "one"s and mistakingly changed all the "I"s.

Yes, that is a good example of a perfectly good use which is very different from “I could argue it is inappropriate” (which says more about my position than about the fact itself) or from “you could argue it is inappropriate” which might suggest that the main idea is that YOU could do it.

Perfectly good examples from the internet:

This last one is strange in that it uses the impersonal “one” but then switches to the impersonal “we”.

It is not pretentious per se but because of the context. It is the context.

If the queen is visiting a farm and the farmer explains “when you want to inseminate a mare you first masturbate the stallion…”, well, even though the “you” might be meant as impersonal, it could be interpreted as a suggestion that the queen might at one point want to masturbate a horse. On the other hand, using “when one wants to inseminate…” leaves no room for doubt that it is impersonal and not in any way a suggestion that the queen might enjoy masturbating a horse.

Now, regarding the spelling of “pretencious” . . .

Surely “IF one is about to sodomise a pig…”? :eek:

Are you trying to correct me you pretencious bastard? :smiley: