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What's the grammatical class of "we" when referring to a group in its entirety versus when referring to each individual member of the group.

For example, if I said to my girlfriend:

We will be okay [us as a couple], but regardless, we will be okay [as two individuals, regardless of the status of our relationship].

Clearly both uses of 'we' are referring to both the first and second person, however there is a clear difference in meaning. The same is apparent in this next (intentionally ambiguous) example of a company memo:

We must be politically neutral [as an organization], however we can do whatever we want [as individuals when not representing the organization].

I can't figure out how these uses of 'we' are distinguished in a grammatical sense. It doesn't make sense to say that the first usage is the inclusive 'we' whilst the second usage is the exclusive 'we', as both instances are referring to both the first and second persons.

I know that in both of these cases the ambiguity can be cleared up by using additional words, but that's beside the point, as there should be a way to differentiate between the uses from an analytical standpoint (i.e. how we distinguish between the inclusive and exclusive uses).

Any insight would be appreciated!

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  • I'm not sure how to answer, but maybe you're referring to agency: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agent_(grammar) In the statement "we must be politically neutral", it seems to me that the agent in that case is the organization itself, whereas making a statement such as "we are permitted to work remotely twice per week", the agent in that case would be the particular members of the organization (the organization itself cannot do remote work).
    – Brandin
    Jun 6, 2023 at 7:51
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    (With just one exception), its part of speech (your grammatical class) is noun. Pronouns are a subclass of noun.
    – BillJ
    Jun 6, 2023 at 10:18
  • I don't think there is a designated term for this important concept. Certainly, 'inclusive we' includes all 'concerned' while 'exclusive we' means 'we as opposed to you', and is a different classification. 'Collective we' and 'individuated we' suggest themselves, but are unidiomatic and would need defining if used. 'We as individuals' and 'we collectively' are the usual ways of addressing the different cases, but the duality itself hasn't, as far as I'm aware, an accepted name. Jun 6, 2023 at 10:26
  • Agreeing with Edwin, I had a look around the relevant Wikipedia articles on number, pronouns, etc, and couldn't see this distinction mentioned (although they're not particularly good or thorough articles).
    – Stuart F
    Jun 6, 2023 at 11:26
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    Are you saying that anyone would actually say to someone "we shall be okay and we shall be okay."? Surely not. There has to be a context built around these two statements to allow them to make sense. You can say "we are a man and a woman." Ancient Greek, as it happens, had a special part of verbs and nouns to refer specifically to pairs, and called the 'dual'. But even that would not help. The recent dramatisation of Sally Roony's novel 'Normal People', ends with Connell: "I'll go."; Marianne: "And I'll stay. And we'll be okay." So the 'we' is each separately. Context made it work.
    – Tuffy
    Jun 6, 2023 at 12:02

1 Answer 1

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One should not confuse grammar with semantics. Grammatically, the two uses of we are the same.

I am assuming that in both uses you have in mind, it is not acceptable to precede the we by an article (unlike what I have just done). Otherwise, it's a different story. For example, consider the sentence We are a 'we'. In this case, the first we is a pronoun, but the second is a noun (because it is preceded by an article)—a clear difference in grammar.

Discussion

Motivating example: bank

Consider the situation with the word bank. That word has two quite different meanings: bank1 is a financial institution, and bank2 is sloping land on the side of a river. But despite the lexical difference, bank1 and bank2 are indistinguishable as far as their grammatical properties. Grammatically, both bank1 and bank2 are countable nouns, with the plural banks. They can both be the subject of the sentence (A bank recently collapsed), the object of a verb (We will demolish that bank), a predictive complement (That is a bank), the head of a complicated noun phrase (even all the old banks in Italy that still exist), etc.

There is a possibility that one might detect a difference in how the two banks interact with other words, e.g. prepositions. For example, for all I know, there could be some prepositions that are licensed by bank1, but not bank2 (or vice-versa). However, I am not aware of any such difference. For example, I'm going to the bank is grammatical regardless of whether the bank in question is bank1 or bank2. Even he's in the bank is grammatical for both (though it is much more likely to be used with bank1).

We

The situation with we1 (each individual member of the group) and we2 (a group in its entirety) is similar.

Both we1 and we2 disallow determiners, which is a distinguishing characteristic of pronouns. Both we1 and we2 have the same inflectional forms: us (accusative), our (dependent genitive), ours (independent genitive), and ourselves (reflexive). In the nominative, they can both be subjects of a sentence; in the accusative, they can be objects; and so on and so on.

More generally, I don't know of any constructions that are grammatical with we1 but not we2, or vice versa.

The difference between we1 from we2 is thus not grammatical, but lexical. It should be recorded not in grammar books, but in dictionaries. Unfortunately, as best as I can tell, dictionaries only record we1. And why that might be the case is certainly an interesting question, which I currently have no idea how to answer.

We as a noun in the OED

The following entry in OED at first seems to cover we2, but the annotation n. shows that this we is a noun, which is confirmed by the fact that this we takes an article in the sample sentence:

B. n.
2.
b. A couple or group identified to its members by the word ‘we’; two or more people forming a unit.
1979 E. Hardwick Sleepless Nights v. 61 I am alone here in New York, no longer a we.

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