Over at Judaism.SE someone asked a question with the title

(1) What is the source for not walking with one's hands behind his back

and someone else edited it to read

(2) What is the source for not walking with one's hands behind one's back

commenting (in the edit summary) "antecedent-pronoun agreement".

Ignore, if you please, the gender-neutrality issue. I'm asking here about the ability of one to serve as a pronoun replacing an antecedent.

To me, one cannot replace an antecedent that appears in the text, so it needs to be replaced by a pronoun (like him) just as a noun or name needs to be. Thus, the original question title was correct.

Obviously, to the user who edited this question that's not the case: rather, one is just like any other pronoun in that it can replace an antecedent. In this case, and in fact usually, it replaces only one itself.

Which of us is right, according to common practice? according to style guides and grammars? Wikipedia says "Either form is considered to be correct in formal English."

  • 2
    I'd actually prefer a third form here, "...with one's hands behind their back" Jul 11, 2011 at 18:53
  • @edA, so you're saying you prefer using another pronoun to replace one, just as I do, then. (Which other pronoun replaces it is another question, and gets into gender neutrality, which, as I mentioned, I don't want to confuse the discussion with.)
    – msh210
    Jul 11, 2011 at 18:57
  • @edA, that may or may not be valid depending on whom you ask, but it will certainly be more controversial than just repeating "one". Jul 11, 2011 at 18:59
  • Yes, a possessive pronoun. I'd even consider your to be a better substitute than one's. Jul 11, 2011 at 19:00
  • 1
    One's moved to say one's glad to be here at english.se, rather than judaism.se. I think the question as posed by OP here is quite reasonable, but I also think correcting someone else's phrasing of a title like that is one level of nit-picking too far. The mere fact that it generates debate here suggests it's not so cut-and-dried one should lightly change another's words. Jul 12, 2011 at 3:52

5 Answers 5


Appealing to usage, this Ngram appears to show that both ways are used roughly equally often. Furthermore, British and American usage doesn't seem to differ much:

Google ngram: one finds his, one finds one's

But looking at the actual usages, in maybe half of them 'his' refers to somebody other than 'one'. So, while both ways are clearly used, the repeated usage of 'one' seems to be slightly preferred.


What Wikipedia is supporting is the substitution of "his" for "one's", which is not the same as your assertion; in fact, it rather counts against it by saying the repeated use of "one" is correct.

I don't like Wikipedia's opinion here, but in the opposite way to you. While the repeated "one" is unusual except in very high class British society, I find the inconsistency of "one" followed by "his" to refer to the same thing much more irritating. I would rather sound posh than confused :-)

  • I don't understand this answer. AFAICT Wikipedia is saying both ways are right.
    – msh210
    Jul 11, 2011 at 19:18
  • 2
    @msh210: AFAICT, you are saying one of the ways is wrong: "one cannot replace an antecedent that appears in the text, so it needs to be replaced by a pronoun". This doesn't mesh with Wikipedia declaring both ways right.
    – user1579
    Jul 11, 2011 at 19:34
  • 1
    +1: I would say "not walking with your hands behind your back" or my...my..., or perhaps his...his... or one's...one's.... If the hands and back belong to the same person then the possessive pronouns should agree.
    – Henry
    Jul 11, 2011 at 22:53

In British English, if you use "his" to refer back to "one", you are liable to be misunderstood: "one's" is normal.

I believe that things are different in the US.


It would be correct, though awkward, to say "Why does Joe walk with Joe's hands behind Joe's back?". "One" is just another noun like "Joe"; its status as a pronoun doesn't really matter here. So the edited form is correct, but I find it awkward and, as noted by Wikipedia, the form with "his" is also correct. (To my ear, it's preferred.)

So to answer the question in the title, one can replace an antecedent but it needn't.

  • I think your sentence with Joe is a good example. It is so awkward that I'd almost think you are talking about multiple Joe's, not just the one. Jul 11, 2011 at 19:03
  • @edA, that's why I prefer to say "his" instead of "Joe's" (or "one's"). :-) Jul 11, 2011 at 19:09
  • 1
    But what grounds do you have for asserting that "one's" behaves like "Joe's"? Jul 12, 2011 at 3:26
  • Wikipedia describes these usages here: secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/One_%28pronoun%29. Jul 13, 2011 at 1:27

Using a pronoun to replace an antecedent is correct grammar, so you can replace "one" with "he" as often as you like.

It can also be useful, because it can be used to narrow down the non-gender-specific "one" down to male, in the right context.

Everything else on the subject is personal preference, so is immaterial. Choose your own personal preference, and stick to it (but remember not to demand that others stick to it, too).

  • 2
    But "one" doesn't follow the rules of ordinary nouns; it has some pronoun-like qualities. You can say myself, itself, oneself, but you would never say Joe's self. You can't just argue from analogy here to answer this question. Jul 12, 2011 at 13:21

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.