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July 19th, 2006

One as a pronoun / and/or

by Barbara Wallraff

Kenneth G. Maluchnik, of Lincoln Park, Mich., writes: “A friend said something like this: ‘When one makes the decision to use one’s authority, one must use care that one doesn’t feel empowered to push one’s agenda.’ To which I couldn’t help replying, ‘Only if you can get all five of them to agree!’ Is there a ‘rule of “ones”’ for times when somebody chooses to use this pretentious form of speaking?”

Dear Kenneth: The rule is that if you start with “one,” you’re supposed to stick with it and not wander off into “he” or “she” or “they” or “you” for later mentions of the same person. So the way your friend used “one” is perfectly correct.

That repetitiveness is part of the reason your word “pretentious” often applies. The trend is toward using “you” instead of “one.” But each of these words has its limitations as well as its uses. Consider “If you find prohibitive the upkeep on a polo pony, you might prefer to choose croquet as your sport.” That might work in an advice column for lads at British boarding schools, but in this newspaper, it’s absurd. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I can’t imagine that you -- the real you, who are reading this -- think of yourself as a “Polo or croquet?” type. The wording “If one finds prohibitive the upkeep ...” might be la-di-da, but it’s a better match for the content of the sentence.

Compare “If one isn’t getting enough exercise, playing on the monkey bars in the park might be good for one.” This time, “one” is absurd, because it’s much too formal for the content. But “you” won’t work here either: “If you’re not getting enough exercise, playing on the monkey bars might be good for you”? You probably aren’t any more interested in playing on monkey bars than I am.

“One” should be someone who probably isn’t you and, what’s more, is completely unspecific. If you can be more specific, do it: “If your child isn’t getting enough exercise ...” And in your friend’s sentence, who was “one,” really? CEOs? Politicians? We’d all understand your friend’s remark better if we knew what person or group it was about.

Gerald Metz, of Addison, Maine, writes: “I must reject your condemnation of ‘and/or’ in a recent column unless you can propose an effective substitute. Let us imagine that I invite you and a friend, Bill, to go for an afternoon sail on my boat. The boat is so large that I cannot handle it alone. If you go, or if Bill goes, then I can go. Otherwise I must stay on shore. The boat is large enough for three if all decide to go.

“I can make this clear by saying, ‘I can go sailing if you and/or Bill accompany me,’ or I can say, ‘I can go sailing if you or Bill or you and Bill accompany me.’ There are my choices, unless you have a third option.”

Dear Gerald: Why can’t you say, “I can go sailing if you or Bill, or both of you, come with me”? I’ll bet that’s what most people actually would say. Now, where’s the boat, and when do you want to set sail?

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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