Today’s Guardian has an article by the reader’s editor Chris Elliott about the use of the pronoun we. A comment has been posted under the possibly pseudonymous name of Fred Dee saying:
”You saw the headlines all over the place, variations on ‘Now we understand the universe better’.”
The complaint is that we do not understand the universe better; only an ‘elite of people defined by their ability to understand theoretical physics’ may be able to do so.
Warming to his theme he lights on the confirmation of the Higgs Boson particle as being responsible for a mutation of the pronoun virus – the self-exclusionary “we”.
Hardly. The existence of two separate meanings of we is by no means novel. It can be exclusive (somebody else and I, but not you) or inclusive (you, I and somebody else). As I say in A Guide to English Language Usage:
We in English can be exclusive or inclusive.
Exclusive (another person and I, but not you): May we go now please, Mr Jones?; When we’ve ﬁnished the report I’ll put it on your desk.
Inclusive (you and I and possibly another person): Mr Jones says we may go now; We must be sure to leave on time.
The inclusive use of we is extended to use by
· authors: As we have seen in chapter 6…; … so we can assume that…
· doctors and nurses: How are we today? (How are you?); We’ll feel better after a week in bed (The reference could be second person: You’ll feel better… or third person: He/she’ll feel better…). Some people dislike this, feeling that it is condescending to the patients.
· newspaper editors: We have the original documents in our possession; We believe that the government has made a mistake.
The royal we is an extreme example of this inclusive use; it is only used in formal royal language when the monarch refers to him/herself personally as we instead of I. When prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s ﬁrst grandchild was born in 1989, she declared We have become a grandmother.
Elliott continues, referring to ‘Dee’:
“Theoretical physicists now understand the universe better” would be more accurate, he thinks. But not a headline any journalist would write, in that it is passive.
It is not clear whether this reason for not writing it (i.e. that it is passive) is ‘Dee’s’ or Elliott’s (the grammar suggests ‘Dee’ but the contextual implication is Elliott), but it does seem clear that Elliott accepts it. Unfortunately it is just not true.
I had thought that the great passive misunderstanding, which has been documented so often on the Language Log was confined to the USA. It seems that the Guardian has also been affected. I simply cannot see why this sentence is described as passive. It has a subject (Theoretical physicists), an active verb (understand) and a direct object (the universe). It also has two correctly placed adverbs: now in mid-position and better in end-position.
The universe is now understood better by theoretical physicists
is indeed a passive sentence. It is also one that I sincerely hope no journalist would write, but that is beside the point. The Guardian’s reader’s editor can’t tell an active sentence from a passive one.