Saturday, May 29, 2010

One is not amused

In the Listener with today’s cover date (not online – bizarrely, the publisher expects us to pay for content. Honestly, some people) Joanne Black interviews Christopher Hitchens. It’s all good, as always with Hitchens, but Black says that at boarding school:
his Fifeshire accent was knocked out of him, and one guesses, he also picked up the affectation of saying “one” when meaning “I” or “you”.
Which is nonsense. New Zealandy nonsense, chippy nonsense, totally nonsensical nonsense. Nonsense on stilts.

“One” is not an alternative to “I” or “you”. It has a quite distinct meaning as an impersonal pronoun and can often be very handy. You perhaps never use it but I do. One’s meaning can be clearer that way.

Of the two gold-standard guides to how we use our language, Eric Partridge in Usage and Abusage is sound on this, of course, but Fowler’s Modern English Usage, as updated by Robert Burchfield in 1996 (the book’s predecessor, The King’s English, is a free download here), is even clearer:
The use of one to mean ‘any person’, ‘I’ or ‘me’ is often regarded as an affectation, although English does not always have a ready alternative. It is probably true to say that the more one is associated with ‘I’ or ‘me’, the greater the affectation: This performance commanded attention; at times . . . it brought one’s blood to a boil – Chicago Tribune, 1988. When it genuinely means ‘any person’ (including only incidentally the speaker), it seems a good deal more natural: You must realize that there are risks that one doesn’t take – Nadine Gordimer, 1987.
Partridge allows that:
In friendly or familiar speech and in familiar writing, the you mode is permissible and often preferable . . . [But in] formal speeches and addresses, as in formal and literary writing, the one mode is preferable.
Clarity rules, I reckon. There simply are times when “one” trumps “you” and “I”. If it makes you sound like the Queen, it is wrong. If it makes your meaning clear, it is right.

Fun facts: Eric Partridge was born on a farm in the Waimata Valley, near Gisborne. Robert Burchfield was born in Wanganui. Two of the 20th century’s greatest lexicographers were New Zealanders. They were cool with “one”. We should be too.

1 comment:

Barbara E said...

This one must agree.