Writing academic essays in English can be a daunting task for the EFL writer (my native language is German), but for me a very specific problem gives me headaches and leaves me sitting with a smoking brain pondering what to do now.

In German there is the 3. person singular pronoun man which refers to no one specific referent. In German it can be used often and is not frowned upon in academic writing either.

A translation as example: "One can not help but wonder about the differences between English and German."

Now the one is where the German man would be written. But when I do so my professors tell me that I should watch my ones.

The thing is, when I write an essay in English and use one at some point, that one tends to breed and propagate and all its little offspring heap themselves all over my text and I have to call an exterminator to get rid of them.

Now my question is whether there is some nice and easy way to indicate an unspecified referent when writing, similar to man, but which is not considered to be bad or Germanic style.

  • One can seem a bit forma
    – BillJ
    Nov 30, 2015 at 12:26
  • If you substitute some xyz for one, you'll have as many xyzs as you had ones - it doesn't solve the proliferation problem. Try rewording your original text. E.g. "The differences between English and German are puzzling / unfathomable / strange / ... ."
    – Lawrence
    Nov 30, 2015 at 12:27
  • 1
    Just call him Kevin.
    – Ricky
    Nov 30, 2015 at 12:28
  • 3
    I have also seen French and Spanish speakers use an impersonal one excessively in English and make it seem too formal. Informally an impersonal you is commonly used, but this does not work in academic writing. Some writers default to we to mean the writer(s), reader and everybody else.
    – Henry
    Nov 30, 2015 at 12:29
  • @dukerasputin I know what you mean: excessive use of "one" can appear a bit pretentious. An alternative might be to use "we", which can appear neutral when used in textbook style.
    – BillJ
    Nov 30, 2015 at 12:30

5 Answers 5


In German it can be used often and is not frowned upon in academic writing either.

I think this might be the issue here: not that your lecturers dislike the word 'one' per se, but they may be critical of assigning a position to an unknown or unspecified actor.

I seem to remember being pulled up on passive voice when in uni for a similar reason — it's appropriate usage (e.g. formal style), but if you say:

There is a belief that…

Well, who believes? Using 'one' has this same problem:

One believes that…

From experience, in the approach to humanities essays taken by UK(/Irish) universities, it's important to outline who in the field have put forward the points up to now & how you're putting these together to argue your point.

Arguments from a 'common sense' basis don't cut it :)

  • 2
    I never really thought about it like this before, but I suppose one of the reasons weaker students tend to overuse the passive in their version of "formal writing" is precisely because they're often diffident about explicitly saying whose opinion they're referring to in something like It is believed that the moon is made of green cheese - either because they don't know anyone famous who believes that and can be cited as a credible source, or because they rightly suspect they will be ridiculed if they say I believe that the moon is made of green cheese. Nov 30, 2015 at 13:51
  • 1
    Right, that may be the problem, me going with the common sense approach, instead of citing sources and whatnot and being more specific. Thanks! Nov 30, 2015 at 14:21
  • This doesn't answer the question posed. The question is "what is an alternative to using one". This 'answer' merely explains why using one may be considered bad style.
    – AndyT
    Nov 30, 2015 at 15:00
  • 1
    @anotherdave - So the question is "whether there is something", and your answer is "no". I guess I can understand that, even if I don't 100% agree with it. I'd like to take my downvote back, but stupid SE rules don't allow people to change their minds...
    – AndyT
    Nov 30, 2015 at 15:29
  • 1
    @AndyT Yes that is why I chose anotherdave's answer, it suited my needs and also gave an explanation of why "one" is better not to be used that often. My question was also posed rather vague, apologies for that :) Nov 30, 2015 at 15:55

Usage of "one" as an unspecified referent is generally seen as pompous.

"One cannot help but seem rather stuck up when one uses one"

Informally "you" is commonly used:

You'll seem more normal using you

In academic writing a slightly more formal version is to use "we", meaning the writer and the reader combined:

We can all use we to sound slightly formal.

Note: Shamelessly stolen from @Henry's comment on the original question, but it needed to be made into an answer.


Your choices are:

  1. one (seems pompous and affected)
  2. we (the most common, can get overused or condescending)
  3. the reader/('the student'/etc.) (stilted and overly academic)
  4. you (unacceptable, way too colloquial)
  5. alternatively, rewrite in the passive voice/infinitive/gerund/other noun phrase:

    'one can infer that X' -> 'it can be inferred that X'/'the inference that X can be made'/'inferring X, we conclude that Y...'

Personally I prefer 5. over 2., it flows better and it's less obtrusive; 2. however is more common in academia. If you must use 2., my advice is to mix it with 5. Whatever pronoun you use to address the reader, too many of them gets annoying and distracts from the narrative you're trying to set forth; it feels too conversational.

  • To the downvoter: please tell me what you think is bad with this?
    – smci
    Dec 3, 2015 at 21:59

It's a matter of difference in usage between some of the European languages such as German/ French and English.

In English, the third person singular used to refer to any person in general, goes with this
Usage Note (ODO: scroll down till you see the sub-heading "Usage")

In modern English the use of one as a pronoun to mean ‘anyone’ or ‘me and people in general’, as in one must try one’s best, is generally restricted to formal contexts, outside which it is likely to be regarded as rather pompous or old-fashioned. In informal and spoken contexts the normal alternative is you, as in you have to do what you can, don’t you?.

I would say it is better suited to literary use in a very limited way, and to be avoided in academic writing.

  • 3
    Why would one object to being considered pompous or old-fashioned?
    – GEdgar
    Nov 30, 2015 at 14:12
  • How does academic writing fall outside formal contexts? Nov 30, 2015 at 20:34
  • @SevenSidedDie It doesn't -- but ask ODO -- Good Luck.
    – Kris
    Dec 3, 2015 at 13:05
  • @GEdgar Because of the context. Need more details?
    – Kris
    Dec 3, 2015 at 13:05

One can not help but wonder about the differences between English and German.

What you're asking us to do is to translate the original German usage of man without using the literal translation, English one. So here goes:

The differences between English and German cannot fail to be wondered at.

Rather than adopting passive voice, this wording engages the reader by making the assumption of wonderment.

And there you have the difference between transliteration which focuses word-by-word on the language shift, and true translation, which takes account of the idiomatic usage of apparently cognate words.

The English cognate of the German pronoun man is generally not used. Similarly, but more illustrative, the English cognate of Dutch fokken tends to be avoided when dealing with matters of animal husbandry.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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