I often read sentences that use the pronoun 'one' twice to refer to the same hypothetical person, but I've always felt reluctant in using it myself. Here's an example:

One's experiences shape one's expectations.

The second one refers to the first, and this meaning is clear from context: Both one refer to the same person. Yet, in this way, the sentence really just says that hypothetical person A's experiences shape person B's expectations (whether or not persons A and B are the same person).

Is this kind of construction tolerated or considered bad form?

  • Is it tolerated or considered bad form in what context? – Kevin Workman Jul 8 '14 at 14:00
  • Do some people consider such constructions poor English? – Pertinax Jul 8 '14 at 14:12

This is one of the solutions to the classic usage problem of what pronoun to use for a generic or hypothetical human individual of indeterminate sex. See Is there a correct gender-neutral, singular pronoun (“his” versus “her” versus “their”)? This particular possibility is taken up in Caleb Thompson’s answer, and his example does involve using one twice:

One should save one's questions until the end.

In general, if you go with this solution, you are likely to have to repeat the one, maybe several times. Some writers and speakers lose their nerve and revert to singular “they” (“One should save their questions until the end”), but that is just sloppy: if you go for one, you really need to stick with that choice.

@njd comments upon Mr. Thompson’s answer and example:

This is correct, but has practically fallen into disuse because it suggests an embarrassingly high level of education. Shouldn't be embarrassing, but the UK has a lot of inverse snobbery, which makes people reluctant to use this form; so we tend to use "they/their" instead ("his or her" just feels too clumsy).

I suspect that the bad odo(u)r of this one solution, in the UK and particularly England, is less a matter of education than of the stereotyped tendency for upper-class English persons to use this oft-repeated one to indicate a hypothetical person whose sex may be either male or female but whose class is (of course!) their own, since others do not really exist for them, or are not worth talking about.

Speaking from an AmE perspective, I would say it tends to sound a bit stuffy when the one has to be repeated, but better stuffy than sloppy.

  • Even the first use of one tends to sound stuffy. – Barmar Jul 11 '14 at 20:43
  • On the other hand, one can imagine the inaptness of a book on the importance of creative solitude bearing the title A Room of Their Own. – Sven Yargs Jul 17 '14 at 7:18

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.