Imagine yourself – a man – sitting next to someone you want to talk to – a woman – on a bus, train, plane, etc. After a while you say: 'One of us has to start talking / break the ice, don't they? / doesn't he? / doesn't she?'

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    Shouldn't it be we? It would still be plural I suppose. – Kris Jun 18 '14 at 6:17
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    "One of us always comes with subject we" -- learnenglishrapidly.com/2013/04/question-tags-verbs.html – Kris Jun 18 '14 at 6:18
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    In the situation pictured in the question, only one person can start talking, so 'we' does not seem logical here. This is what triggered my question. – user58319 Jun 18 '14 at 8:29
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    @Kris - So you would would really write One of us is wrong, aren't we?. I guess by analogy you would not bat an eyelid at One of these balls is blue, aren't they? – oerkelens Jun 18 '14 at 9:25
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    @oerkelens yes, "Then one of us is wrong, aren't we?" is exactly how it would be written. Same for the balls. – Matt E. Эллен Jun 18 '14 at 10:04

Use we.

One of us has to start talking, don't we?

It seems a little strange, but that's because people wouldn't phrase the (rhetorical) question that way.

One of us has to start talking.


Shouldn't one of us start talking?

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    No, the reason it seems (more than) a little strange is because of the complete confusion of grammatical number. One of us has, so the subject is singular, but it becomes magically (?) plural in the question tag. I would really appreciate a better explanation of that phenomenon. Well apart from the use of a different verb in the question tag - I would expect at least haven't we. But ok, that is all too common I guess :) – oerkelens Jun 18 '14 at 11:08
  • Please remember that gramar is not a set of rules that everyone has to follow. They are a set of approximate theories on how a language works, often confounded by people who actually use the language. You observe a pattern for grammatical number and then think it has to be true for everything. "One of us" therefore (assuming both men) he? No that seems really wrong. We seems right because that's what is used. – Matt E. Эллен Jun 18 '14 at 11:21
  • That is used? Not by me or anybody I have ever spoken to. I am genuinely surprised there_are_ people that use it like that. Accordance of number is not just a vague idea, it is a pretty strong grammatical pattern in many languages, and it usually is simple ungrammatical to break it. If there is any (prescriptive, no less!) exception for question tags or one of X, then I would be very pleased with a source. (And please, a source that is at least written in proper English - or is random elision of articles as in Kris' source also a new rule?) – oerkelens Jun 18 '14 at 11:28
  • I think the problem is the "one of us... don't X" doesn't come up often enough that we'd be reliably able to be sure which is right. The don't we version has one hit in Google books, whereas don't they has none. So statistically there is little difference that I can find. I am willing to admit that the balls example sounds fine with either they or it. – Matt E. Эллен Jun 18 '14 at 12:00
  • Maybe have a look at (the comments) to my question, I am not the only one surprised at this unexpected exception to a pretty straightforward grammar pattern. – oerkelens Jun 18 '14 at 12:48

I'd rephrase it entirely, as something like, "One of us has to start talking, don't you think?"


Singular they is the modern, gender neutral term used increasingly in situations of mixed-gender crowds.

It's even more appropriate in the case where the mixed-'crowd' contains only two people. Using he would seem to put the onus of talking on the man, and using she would do the same for the women. So using the gender neutral singular they works best.

For more info on the use of singular they, see this wiki article. It seems to be acceptable in most places, except some American audiences where it will 'make people doubt your literacy', but in my experience this seems to be vanishingly applicable in the modern sense.

ETA (because I jumped the gun and didn't think the whole thing through, before answering the call for gender-neutral singular) in the particular case mentioned by the OP, the pronoun should indeed by we, as pointed out by a whole lot of people in the comment threads as well as by Matt in the answer below.

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    What's special about the situation in the question is that the action 'start talking', 'break the ice', if you prefer, can only be done by one person, and that person is a different gender from the other person: that's what makes the question interesting in my view. – user58319 Jun 18 '14 at 10:01
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    @user58319: that is why this answer is correct. They, even though it behaves like a plural, can (and often does!) indicate a singular person of non-defined sex. – oerkelens Jun 18 '14 at 11:18
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    A real singular they would be "One of us has to start talking, doesn't they?" which I don't believe anybody would say. – Tim Lymington Jun 18 '14 at 12:25
  • @TimLymington What's your point, could you elaborate? The fact that it's used in a non-standard doesn't say anything about the existence of this usage. English is full of exceptions to the rules. – Shisa Jun 18 '14 at 14:35
  • I've been using the singular they all my life, and to me it sounds really, really wrong here. The singular they should only be used in the third person. The only question tag that sounds at all reasonable to me here (although I wouldn't use it myself) is the singular we. – Peter Shor Jul 7 '14 at 11:09

An English language imperfection. An imperfection of the language of Shakespeare. The rule of the tag questions having to contain the pronoun of the person the question refers to, that very neat grammatical construction fails misarably in this case.

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