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Can "We" be used as an indefinite pronoun such as "Everybody" or "One" to refer to people in general.

Example: One cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs.

It is a (French) proverb originally with "You" as the subject pronoun. Is it correct to use "We" in this case to refer to people in general?

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  • Can you create an example?
    – F.E.
    Apr 24, 2014 at 0:33
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    By convention we usually use one as the "generic pronoun". But as they say, you can often be used that way too (I'm sure everyone knows that! :) Apr 24, 2014 at 1:04
  • Your example has an English equivalent: You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs. Apr 24, 2014 at 1:04
  • You generally hear this in the U.S. as "you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs". I suspect one is more likely to hear "one can't ..." in the U.K. Why would we want to use "we" instead of these two more common alternatives? Apr 24, 2014 at 1:10
  • I always look for the uncanny things in languages, plus we use both "We" and "One" in my native dialect to talk about people in general so I thought to myself why not in English. Apr 24, 2014 at 1:22

2 Answers 2

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I've always been wondering if the subject pronoun "We" can be used as an indefinite pronoun such as "Everybody" or "One" to refer to people in general.

Probably not. But maybe there is a usage out there . . .

In general, the pronoun "we" is characteristically used for the speaker or a group that includes at least a speaker.

There is a usage where the pronoun "we" is used for a third party or the addressee, such as when a doctor asks the patient, "Have we taken our medicine this morning?"

There is a usage of the pronoun "we" that is interpreted as meaning the single speaker, e.g. "Give us a piece of your pie". Though, it applies only with the accusative and perhaps the genitive forms. There is also the honorific singular "we" of Queen Victoria's "we are not amused", though supposedly this usage is no longer current (2002 CGEL, page 1467).

There is the authorial "we", where an author can use the pronoun "we" in text to sorta involve the reader, e.g. "As we have already seen in the previous chapter . . ."

(Aside: There is the personal determinative "we", but that's probably a different topic.)

This is what I can think of at the moment.

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"We" is used this way, to refer to an indefinite, general, and/or unspecified actor. Sometimes the usage is referred to as the "royal we," which is an allusion to a supposed habit of speech on the part of a king or queen who may use the plural first person to refer to self. That usage conveys a sense of heightened importance or corporate identity. In standard, formal English usage, such non-literal use of "we" is considered improper, but it this usage abounds in colloquial, informal, and idiomatic language.

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  • The generic "we" is not the royal "we". When Julia Child says "first we braise the chicken, and then we put it into the oven," she is definitely not using the royal "we". Jan 12, 2023 at 22:02

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