12

One can do his homework in the library.

One can do one's homework in the library.

Nowadays, are these structures part of colloquial English? The use of one as a pronoun is still in use or is it considered formal if not old-fashioned? In this case how can we render colloquially the same idea?

  • 17
    One wonders just whose homework the first sentence is suggesting that one do in the library. – tchrist Mar 12 at 20:20
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    The problem isn't the one. The problem is that one matches with one’s in English, not with his, which would appear to be some other guy’s homework. :) Sure we can do our own homework, and you can do your own homework, mais on ne peut pas faire les devoirs de quelques autre mec à notre bibliothèque. :) – tchrist Mar 12 at 20:33
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    You would not mix the two, one/one’s or he/his, not one/his as in your first example. – jmoreno Mar 13 at 11:02
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    @jmoreno I can see 2 cases were you would mix them: First, it's not a pronoun ("These two students keep fighting. One can do his homework in the library. The other can do her homework in the common room"). Secondly, when "one" is an abbreviated form: "[Some]one can do his homework in the Library"), especially as a derogative form of "You can do your homework in the library" – Chronocidal Mar 13 at 13:52
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    According to The Right Word at the Right Time, an anonymously written handbook of English grammar, usage, and style, published by the Reader's Digest, one can sometimes match with his in American usage, but not in British. It certainly looks strange to me, but I have seen it before. @tchrist. – TRiG Mar 13 at 15:58
23

In my opinion, using one in this sense is grammatical but awkward. I don't think it is entirely a matter of formality or that the usage has fallen out of practice (although, comparing one can, he can, she can, they can on ngrams does tell an intriguing story). I think the use of one is comparable to the use of the passive voice: both are clear and technically correct, but simply strained.

The best solution is to use a more specific word than one.

A student can do his or her homework in the library.

A touch of awkwardness remains. An easy resolution is to replace his or her with their (if you accept the singular they).

A student can do their homework in the library.

Alternatively, we can just make the subject plural. After all, the library should accommodate multiple students.

Students can do their homework in the library.

  • 5
    As the beginning of the answer makes clear, this is a matter of opinion. Some people may regard 'one can do one's homework' as much less awkward than any of the alternatives that are advocated in this answer. – jsw29 Mar 12 at 23:51
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    I can easily imagine Snape telling Harry Potter that "One can do his homework in the library, Mr. Potter." and it feels as natural as nature itself. – John Hamilton Mar 13 at 11:17
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    @JohnHamilton In that case "One" is short for "Someone", and it's a snide or patronising way of saying "You can do your homework in the library" – Chronocidal Mar 13 at 13:56
  • I think the ngram is not entirely useful because if one follows the links at the bottom of the page, one finds that very often it relates to "no one" and in one case to the "One Can" foodbank". google.com/search?q=%22one%20can%22&tbm=bks&lr=lang_en – chasly from UK Mar 13 at 17:24
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    This might be an example where the passive voice is a good choice: "Homework can be done in the library" – user323578 Mar 13 at 21:39
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These days, one seldom uses the subject "one", meaning the impersonal "one", though one generally still understands when others use it. It sounds stilted and old-fashioned. It's too bad that it has gone out of use. I liked it.

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    Surely in an age where pronominal use can be dictated by referent not by the referrer, you could just tell people that your preferred pronouns are one and one’s. :) – tchrist Mar 12 at 20:35
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    You liked it, but one didn't. – Barmar Mar 13 at 16:52
  • I enjoy using one in that sense after reading David Eddings – Wayne Werner Mar 13 at 21:49
5

"One" used to be archaic.

But these days, "one" has become important again, as a non-gendered pronoun. Third party singular pronouns are in short supply. If one is to avoid linguistic horrors such as singular "they", then any usable word is in play. "One" has the advantage of being singularly singular; that's its very name!

You are right, however; "one" has gotten a bad reputation, from a particular style of intentional misspeaking: addressing another in the third party (he, she, one) instead of the second-party (you) as one properly should.

Presuming you are talking to the person doing homework, then "One should do ones homework in the library" is stilted on purpose; that's the whole point of saying it that way. Proper would be:

  • You can do your homework in the library -- remove the haughty formality and address the person directly. The "your" is superfluous, unless you actually mean to say "do your own homework, not Crabbe and Goyle's".

  • One can do homework in the library -- but in this case we are speaking generally about third parties doing homework: say, to the Library Committee. This makes the second pronoun very redundant, so I've dropped it. This particular phrasing is gender neutral and singular by design. (It is distinct from "Students can do their homework in the library", because that implies multiples of students working together would be OK.)

  • If we were speaking about a specific third party, we could just use gendered pronouns if that person has a gender. If our goal is to avoid gendered pronouns, then avert pronouns altogether (as I did in the italics just here).

In any case, one should feel free to use "one" as needed to refer to an actual third party; but make an effort to avoid expressions that make it sound stilted or overly formal.

  • In the 'Library Committee' case, the second pronoun is not redundant if the committee wants to make clear that the students must work separately from each other (the committee, for example, may want to prevent the noise that would be created by the students collaborating on their homework). – jsw29 Mar 13 at 15:20
  • This is only worthwhile if you accept the characterization of singular they as "a linguistic horror" of course. (I don't.) – Martin Bonner Mar 14 at 9:28
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    One could also ask whether the answer's use of singular "you" is likewise a linguistic horror. (-: – JdeBP Mar 14 at 11:52
4

There is a significant difference between French and English which is causing some of the confusion here. In English, each personal pronoun has its own possessive form

I: my, you: your, he: his, she: her, it: its, they: their, one: one's etc.

French is different because all its third-person pronouns use the same possessive form

il, elle, on, ils, elles: son/sa/ses

as well as the obviously related same reflexive pronoun, se.

This means that the question in English is fundamentally different from the question in French.

From the etymological point of view, several languages have these s- pronouns, that are not well explained, popping up in different persons, including

English: she
German: sie (she, they, you)
Irish sinn (we) (as in Sinn Féin, We Ourselves) (Scots Gaelic similar)
Irish sé, sí, siad (he, she, they) (but not found in Scotland)

In French, there is a non-possessive s-pronoun: soi. This is the strong form of on and is apparently related to son/sa/ses (since soi/son/sa/ses corresponds to moi/mon/ma/mes). This means that son/sa/ses has a closer connection to a word for one than to to any other 3rd-person pronoun.

3

I'd agree that the use of "one" sounds old-fashioned or formal. A more colloquial way of saying it would be

You can do your homework in the library.

or

They can do their homework in the library.

or even

Homework can be done in the library.

depending on your intent.

The first is a general statement that people in general can do their homework in the library. The second is more referring to one specific person, but without using that person's gender. It might be a response to a question such as, "Where can my friend do homework?"

The third version is simple passive voice.

  • I agree, "you" seems to have replaced the meaning of "one" in current spoken English. I'd say this is the most general and closest to "one" in meaning. – Tim Foster Mar 13 at 14:33
2

Correct me if I'm wrong, but the first thought that came to my mind when I saw this question is that there has always been a signficant usage difference relating to "one" between UK (or international) English and US English.

I'm an English person so I'm not entirely sure of my ground here... and usage in the US may have changed over recent years/decades. But is it not the case that US English will indeed say "one does x... and he then does y"? Whereas in other forms of English using "he" to correlate with "one" would be unthinkable and frankly confusing.

Further, I've always had the impression that US English is more relaxed about using "one" as one way of a) saying "we"/"I"/"people in general" do such-and-such or b) expressing essentially a passive voice. In UK English either sounds terribly, unforgiveably formal: toffs, academics and civil servants from the 1950s might have used "one" in normal speech, but an English person would only use it nowadays in a very formal register. And no young English person would ever use it at all. What do US people feel about acceptable usage of this pronoun?

  • This is my experience of American vs British English, too. Americans often seem to use "one" as if it is a contraction of "someone", leading to "[Some]one can do his/her/their homework"-type constructions. – David Richerby Mar 14 at 13:36

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