Something I've noticed a lot from reading articles on stack overflow is that programmers tend to use the term 'we' a heck of a lot. I'm a programmer myself and I must admit, of all the times I've given people a few programming lessons or a bit of programming help, I've never felt compelled to use the term 'we' when talking about something you can do in the language.

For example (picking from some stackoverflow suggestions): "When do we really need to use hibernate for our Java code?" and "Why do we use process when we do have threads? [closed]"

Really what these people mean is: "When do you really need to use hibernate for your Java code?" (in which case 'you' acts as an informal equivalent of 'one') and "Why is process used when threads can be used instead?"

Has anyone else noticed this? Is there a reason programmers tend to use 'we' when discussing programming when really they mean 'you' or 'me' or the question could be asked without the terms.

Does anyone know where this trend/habit started or why so many people do it? Frankly it's starting to bother me because it results in an awkward use of English that doesn't feel natural and isn't particularly easy to take in.

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    We are all members of a secret club. Obviously you didn't get a membership invite. – Robusto Feb 25 '13 at 20:38
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    Some of us do it to pretend we're in the club, but we never got an invite either. – FumbleFingers Feb 25 '13 at 20:44
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    @FumbleFingers doesn't even know the secret handshake. Pay no attention to him. – Robusto Feb 25 '13 at 20:46
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    @Pharap: If you don't feel comfortable using we in your code comments, nobody will force you to do it. But I suggest you try to avoid feeling negatively towards others that do use it. They're part of a well-established tradition. – FumbleFingers Feb 25 '13 at 20:57
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    Related: Writers: In what narrative mode should you explain a process or task? – SF. Feb 25 '13 at 21:43

This is a rhetorical narrative voice which is used in nonfiction. It has the effect of creating a sense of level ground between the narrator and audience by creating an inclusive feeling. There is a separation between us and the subject matter, but we (narrator and audience) are both on the same side of it, approaching it together as equals.

It is not confined to academic presenting or writing. For instance, a cooking recipe might be written in various voices, including we:

Imperative: Then, place the ingredients into the skillet and simmer on low heat.

We: Then we place the ingredients into the skillet and simmer on low heat.

I: Then I placed the ingredients into the skillet and simmered them on low heat.

You: Then you place the ingredients into the skillet and simmer on low heat.

All the various voices create their own mood.

The first person plural we-voice is particularly suitable for presenting in front of an audience.

Programmers have sat through lots of lectures in school, so the we voice is drilled into their heads. How do we know this is true? We solve this equation ...

You, we and one are all different voices which mean the same thing: any person at all in an applicable situation, but with different moods.

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  • I have to do a replace-all of "we" and "our" when reviewing code to avoid the distraction they cause in my mind, almost like a siren warning of unknowns. Who is this "we"? Yes I think they were impressed by professors using that voice and now they would like to be impressive. It's how some mothers talk to children, "We use the spoon to eat our peas" preparing them for success, and I find that patronizing, er, matronizing. "# We set the maximum we want in our code" can just be # global maximum, fewer words. Pronouns do not belong in code. We are glad others have joined our club disliking it. :/ – gseattle May 21 '18 at 21:47

You'll see that in every field, not just programming. It 'means' that the problem or practice or need or stupid behavior is endemic to the field, not just to isolated practitioners.

For instance, in my old field of literary scholarship, I might ask plaintively,

Why, just when the advent of personal computers made it possible to create handsome, intelligible footnotes and marginal notes, have we decided to adopt the loathsome social-sciences practice of inline citation, which disfigures the typographic beauty of my page and renders my skillfully crafted prose difficult to follow?

I didn't decide to adopt that practice; I trust that you as a fellow-scholar didn't decide to adopt that practice; but somehow or other we have adopted that practice, and I'd like to know Why? (And what the hell you and I and other right-minded people can do about it.)

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    Wikipedia calls this the author’s we. – MetaEd Feb 25 '13 at 20:51
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    @MετάEd Wikipedia may call it the authorial we, but I contemn the authorial we and scorn to practice it: I fought hard with my dissertation advisor to discard the pretentious and irresponsible authorial we and replace it with the veracious authorial I. – StoneyB on hiatus Feb 25 '13 at 20:55
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    Now tell us how you really feel. – MetaEd Feb 25 '13 at 20:56
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    @MετάEd Pretty good now I've got that off my chest. – StoneyB on hiatus Feb 25 '13 at 20:57
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    Or perhaps we're just lonely. – Sven Yargs Feb 25 '13 at 21:28

I learned this practice from mathematics professors, who said that we use "we" in mathematical writing to be welcoming and inviting to the reader - you and I are doing math together. Seems a little silly now that I'm writing it, but this is how I learned it.

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  • That at least sheds a bit of light on things considering the amount of mathematicians that get involved in programming. I have to disagree on that philosophy though, I think 'we' sounds creepy at the least and patronising at the worst (if being used all the time). A very useful response. – Pharap Feb 26 '13 at 0:43
  • @Pharap You can interpret it as patronizing if you like, but it certainly isn't how it is meant -- it is used not just in textbooks but papers written to be read by peers. – starwed Mar 16 '13 at 2:15
  • For research papers there might be a simpler reason. Most papers (at least in my field, and I'm guessing in most science and engineering) are multi-author papers. The natural option is then to use 'we'. I suppose that single-author papers could use 'I', but with double-blind journal submissions 'we' would be consistent with other papers. – user327301 Mar 16 '13 at 6:25
  • Thank you @raoulcousins. I can see the good intentions in professors but maybe not realizing they are conditioning students to do likewise. Pronouns are so endemic, functions will be named like my_rebalance(). Wait, you know it is yours and you know I know it is yours, all those extra characters, think of the electrons. The software CPU portion of my brain thinks it is more efficient without any notions of possession: We, our, my. Professors, please tell your students: No pronouns in code unless necessary. – gseattle May 21 '18 at 22:14

Your question triggered a few minutes of introspection as I went over the document I had written this afternoon in which I had taken out a few I's and replaced them with the plural under discussion.

Why did I do it? Now that I think about it, it is a consciously nurtured habit. So, here is the hypothesis based on my recollection of my programming days: Programmers are loners, with long bouts of concentration and Eureka moments where their own stupidity or that of someone else shines through the code. Hold this thought for a second. The good ones are particularly good at this and are orders of magnitude better than the 'wannabes' and are often resented by the struggling programmers (who will be future managers) and termed arrogant and not team players.

At least this is how I developed this habit — going out of my way to show teamwork and not throwing it in someone's face with an accusative 'you'.

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    +1, pretty much the same for me. "You" is too easily accusative, and "I" is too easily arrogant (even when we don't intend it as such). "We" is a good middle ground - and in a professional setting, is often the only correct term, when multiple people work on the same piece of code. – Izkata Feb 26 '13 at 3:15

As a programmer myself, I consciously use "We" in the code comments and other written media. Why? Because at any time, I consider there are at least two parties involved - the person that wrote it and the person reading it. One is in the past and the other is in the present. The one in the present is trying to follow what the one in the past meant.

In other words, I see it as a conversation through time, where the person who wrote the code is trying to explain something in a way that involves the person trying to understand it. We is more inclusive - I wrote it, you need to fix it, let's figure it out together.

This is also why I never use we when I am explaining my work in person, which is also usually verbally.

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  • In a team it can be literally more than two people, not even considering the time dimension. – 0xC0000022L Feb 26 '13 at 1:50
  • This explains this perfectly, in fact I was just about to write saying this but you have worded it better than I could. Well done! +1 – Vality Jun 18 '14 at 20:24
  • Just got down voted. There was no mention of why and therefore the person who down voted me has done nothing to improve the future quality of my answers. – Carl Jul 16 '14 at 19:54

I see it as induction into a culture or practice. We're not describing mere preference - there's an element of normativity in our preferences. It's like when a teacher says to a child, "We raise our hands when we have a question." That statement isn't mere description of a state of affairs - it's a statement about what we should do - the "we" being the culture one is being inducted into.

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