The Royal "We"

In honor of royal babies, we're pondering a pompous pronoun choice known as the "royal we." Constance Hale is a San Francisco journalist who covers grammar, writing, and the writing life at www.sinandsyntax.com.

Constance Hale, Writing for
4-minute read
Episode #377

The pronouns a writer chooses may seem like a wee little thing, but these little stand-ins for nouns can have an outsize impact, setting the point of view of a passage as well as its tone, and making some pretty grand (or grandiose) statements. Take, for example, the use of the first person plural pronoun by a speaker who means I but says we. .

The Royal We

The most sanctioned example of this is “the royal we,” or pluralis majestatis. Don’t be fooled by the Latin: the royal we has enjoyed popularity far beyond Rome by monarchs, popes, and even university rectors. The origin of this pronoun has been traced variously to 1169, when the English king Henry II used it to mean “God and I,” and to King Richard I, whose use of the pronoun bolstered his claim to be acting in concert with the deity and to be the ruler by divine right. A more recent example of the royal we would be Queen Victoria’s oft- quoted “We are not amused.” 

It’s amazing how easily politicians slide into this more majestic me, especially when they become presidents or prime ministers. In that case they usually mean not “God and I” but “my campaign and I” or, later, “my administration and I.” (When Margaret Thatcher went so far as to say “We have become a grandmother,” though, she earned widespread guffaws.)