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 Editorial We

Editors or editorial columnists also use the royal we (calling it “the editorial we”), especially when expressing the opinion of a publication’s powers that be. Science writers adopt the editorial we when stating a proven principal or theorum (as in Albert Einstein’s “We are thus led also to a definition of ‘time’ in physics”). Sometimes even lowly writers can affect the authority, or the easy elegance, of the editorial we, but you might want to heed Mark Twain’s advice: “Only presidents, editors, and people with tapeworms ought to have the right to use we.” 

The Political We

There’s a long history of the royal we in Europe, where Louis XIV declared “L’état, c’est moi”  and where the British monarch pretends to speak for the people. But doesn’t it sound strange when American politicians adopt this tic? When the royal we becomes the default pronoun I call it a case of “the grandiose narrator.”  

When it comes to grandiose narrators, Newt Gingrich takes the cake (or the Let Them Eat Cake Award). When his top campaign staff abandoned him in 2011 during the Republican primary, Gingrich remarked: “Philosophically, I am very different from normal politicians. We have big ideas.” 

The Urban We

Of course, there are also hoi polloi varieties of the royal we. I call this point of view “the urban we,” in homage to some examples I found on the Urban Dictionary. Here are some of my favorites from the situations listed by the online site: 

• The we used when a person suggests completing a task that he or she can easily accomplish to someone else, with no real intention of helping out: “We should clean off the sidewalk.” 

• The we used to say you in a belittling and overbearing manner: “Hmm . . . we seem to have left the door unlocked again, haven’t we? [WHACK!] Maybe that’ll teach us a lesson, hmm?”