One is most bemused: hedging and the strange function of ‘one’

The original idea for this blog post came one afternoon when my wife saw my response to an email we’d both received from the school our son goes to. His new form tutor had written to us saying how well he was settling in and suggesting that he was a credit to us and that he must’ve had a great upbringing. My response to this slightly over-the-top praise?

‘Many thanks for this. Very pleased to hear he’s finding his feet OK. Not sure we can take that much credit for the way he’s turned out, to be honest, but one does what one can.’

It was this last turn of phrase that perplexed my (Indonesian) wife. ‘Why would you say it that way?’ she asked, incredulously. ‘Why did you use one when you’re talking about yourself – or about us? It’s just weird! It’s like some sort of humblebrag or something.’

This got me thinking about why exactly I had gone for the words I used, and the best answer I could come up with was that I was trying to avoid sounding too big-headed by saying that yes, actually, we really have done a really great job bringing him up, haven’t we. By switching to the more distant, impersonal pronoun one, I’m suggesting that anyone would do what we’ve done, and that there’s nothing that special about it. One works better than you for this purpose as it means ‘people in general’, but it also includes the speaker / writer in a way that you doesn’t really. It gave me a dry, wry way of talking about myself whilst also not talking about myself.

In general everyday English, it is, of course, far more common to use you to talk about people in general – a fact which often confuses students as English uses the same pronoun to mean you, the person I’m talking to now and you, people in general – which may or may not include you, the person I’m talking to at the moment. Sentence like the following all contain this kind of ambiguity.

If you’ve done a wide range of things before you start teaching, it helps keep things in perspective.

You get used to it after a while.

Art can help you express yourself.

You need to see it with your own eyes to get a sense of the sheer scale of the piece. It’s enormous. 

You just have to roll with the punches and deal with whatever life throws at you.

Using one in any of these sentences would sound a bit pompous and pretentious. Partly, this is down to the fact that one has long been a staple part of the way our kings and queens have expressed themselves. Monarchs, upper-class people, and particularly Queen Elizabeth II during her reign, are often depicted as using one as a first-person pronoun. In other words, as a rather odd way of saying I.

Over the years, the tabloid media has often played with this idea when referring to the Queen or senior members of the Royal Family. For example, near the end of 1992, which was a difficult year for the British royal family, the Queen famously quipped that it had been her “Annus horribilis”. Playing with the similarity in spelling between the Latin word for year – annus – and the word anus, and the fact that bum can sometimes mean bad, The Sun – never a paper known for its politeness or propriety – went on to publish a now-infamous headline: ONE’S BUM YEAR!

Given the incredibly class-conscious nature of British society, it’s perhaps the case that using one allows us commoners to play with the language of the aristocracy and to use it a playful, ironic sort of a way that’s both knowing and deliberately entertaining.

Arch wit Oscar Wilde was clearly aware of this when he came up with such famous quips as ‘I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train’, ‘One should always be in love. That is the reason one should never marry’ and ‘To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance’.

You can find examples of this kind of humorous tinge to the way we use one all over the place.

Here are just a few examples culled from a brief scouring of Twitter.

I think it’s fair to say that one wouldn’t want to be stuck in a lift with him.

If one is a prince, one steps out with actresses. One doesn’t marry them!

Reading people’s takes on Twitter in 2023 is like going on a crazed, psychedelic fuelled trip in which one cannot be sure one’s even awake.

One doesn’t need to be religious to be an intolerant extremist fundamentalist!

It’s interesting to note that we often use negative after one, as you’ll have seen above. Interestingly, this is also the case in maybe the most famous meme using one. In the 2002 film version of Lord of the Rings, a character called Boromir notes that ‘One does not simply walk into Mordor’ – and it’s a line that’s sparked a million memes.

Among the many versions I found just now are:

One does not simply give value to the opinions of others if they know nothing about the subject.

One does not simply say no to free food samples.

One does not simply step out of a Lamborghini.

One does not simply make millions in crypto.

One does not simply take a scuba dive and suddenly discover 50,000 Roman coins in exceptional state of preservation unless you are the luckiest person on earth.

Of course, in speeches, presentations, written texts, and so on, you do also see and hear one being used just to mean ‘you’ or ‘people in general’, as these examples show:

If ageing was retarded in humans, what one would expect is a reduction in the levels of most ageing-related illness.

In the case of the Philippines, one would expect that the Association of southeast Asian Nations would be taking a leading role.

One would think that the problem of hunger is being solved, but the truth is, that’s still very much a work win progress.

Our security is much better, but, you know, one would never say one was perfect, ever.

Madison soon realised that one cannot take notes of one’s self speaking.

To put it simply, the message seems to be that one should be content with what one has.

Note, by the way, that one common chunk here is clearly one would expect that . . . . . and that one often occurs with modal verbs more generally.

Right, I think that’s me done for now. I’m off to have a much-needed nap.

One needs one’s beauty sleep, doesn’t one.

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One Response

  1. Elena says:

    ‘One’ in this sense is like a/an article with no noun to follow, indefinite article with its full rights restored.) .

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