I just came across the following sentence in the book "The theory of everything":

If one keeps traveling in a certain direction on the surface of the Earth, one never comes up against an impassable barrier or falls over the edge, but eventually comes back to where one started.

Using multiple "one"s repeatedly in a sentence sounds odd to me. Since I found it in a reputable book, I am wondering whether it sounds good to the ears of a native English speaker. Wouldn't it be better to replace the second and third "one" with "he", "she" or "they"?

  • What is the published date of the book? "One" is a fairly antiquated pronoun usually reserved for formal contexts. You're right in that you'd more likely see a different pronoun used in more contemporary language.
    – Cellobin22
    Dec 19, 2014 at 7:38
  • @Guarin42: the book is from 2007, so I doubt that age explains the use of one :)
    – oerkelens
    Dec 19, 2014 at 9:14
  • @oerkelens, just had a quick look and it's publication may be earlier, 2002. However, the subject matter may explain the formality of the context and thus the usage of the pronoun :)
    – Cellobin22
    Dec 19, 2014 at 9:23
  • @Guarin42: Ok, I'm not sure I immediately identified the first edition. However, it's by no means a book that's old enough to boast one as contemporary fashion :)
    – oerkelens
    Dec 19, 2014 at 9:32

4 Answers 4


When describing an impersonal character performing something, one has several options. Which option is selected depends largely on personal preference or the preference expressed in any style-guides the author has to follow.

You can use the second person: if you keep travelling in a certain direction, etc. This is quite informal and tends to appear as a try to include the reader personally into the story. It is very often used in informal oral conversation:

Well, if you ever open a hard disk drive, make sure that you clean the platters with a cloth before closing it again.

The advantage of you is that it can be used to introduce the character, as well as to refer to it later on.

Another option is the use of he or she. To introduce this, you'd need to use one, someone or something similar.

If a traveller keeps travelling in a certain direction, he will not encounter..., he will come back where he started.

The main issue with this option is that some people get upset if an author assumes only male characters are relevant (or vice versa, if one uses she every time, that men don;t play a role). In some cases, he and she are used seemingly at random in different scenarios. Although the idea behind that is nicely politically correct, for some, it works as a distraction in the text. I have noticed that, for instance, Microsoft, has the tendency to switch a lot:

When a user encounters this error, she can take this action. When the developer so wishes, he is free to implement this solution. If a DBA needs to speed up the process, she can use indexes.

Then there is the gender-neutral they. It also needs a separate introduction of the character:

If a traveller keeps travelling in a certain direction, they will not encounter..., they will come back where they started.

Although this use of they is anything but new, there are still plenty of people who stumble over it when reading a text. Some keep interpreting it as a plural, others feel it is an artificial trick to introduce gender-neutrality.

And then of course, there is the good old one. The problem with one is that it seems to always have been less common in English than in some other languages (on in French, men/man in Dutch/German) and it "feels" old-fashioned to some. It does have the advantage, though, of being both singular and gender neutral, and the old-fashioned feeling will not matter much in a (semi-)formal setting. Stephen Hawking's usual audience is no stranger to formal language, and it is hardly surprising that he (or his editor) would opt for this linguistic gem - in a semi-formal explanation of the entire universe, they may well expect one will forgive the small inconvenience of a slightly dated expression. By opting for one, they also avoid the potential unrest that can be caused by every single other option.


It is grammatically correct to use the same pronoun consistently throughout a sentence, rather than shifting persons. I suspect that you were bothered by the first instance of "one", and more bothered by the author's consistently repeating it.


According to this, mixing "one" with "he/his/him" in a sentence is more common in AmE than BrE, but even in the US this habit is decreasing. So while you may hear it such mixed pronouns, personally I would avoid them.

One is a an immensely useful pronoun and English would be a poorer language if one were allowed to wither and fade. Use it, celebrate it, delight in its singular powers of generality and precision. Speak it to your children that this precious pronoun be preserved in perpetuity.


The American Psychological Association style guide recommends the use of "they" since the APA is very politically correct on gender issues, but as mentioned above, "they" is non-ideal due to it being plural. I use "one" all the time, but I am accused of being pompous or overly academic by non-academics, on YouTube and the like.

This resource claims that "one" is archaic http://grammar.yourdictionary.com/style-and-usage/grammar-rules-for-he-she-usage.html but offers no alternative.

French academics use "we" to refer to themselves quite a lot, and perhaps in this circumstance.

In this instance the thing that travels does not need to be human so "an entity" "a particle" "something" and "it" is a possibility. I think that it may even be acceptable to refer to "an individual" as it, in this case where its nature (human or not) is irrelevant.

If an individual keeps travelling in a certain direction on the surface of the Earth, it never comes up against an impassable barrier or falls over the edge, but eventually comes back to where it started.

This blog post argues for the use of singular they https://motivatedgrammar.wordpress.com/2009/09/10/singular-they-and-the-many-reasons-why-its-correct/

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