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I've been wondering for a while if native English speakers will always give contextual cues or clarify before using an exclusive we or if it's assumed that the interlocutor will pick it up automatically.

For example, if I were to recount a story in the past (to someone I knows me well enough to know who I lived with in Shanghai) and say something like "When we lived in Shanghai, we used to often go to a nearby park". Would it sound weird if I didn't explicitly convey that the we refers to me and the person I lived with back then? Or is it normal to just assume that the person can use prior knowledge (not from this particular conversation) to infer that that we excludes them.

In my own native language (French), we have an indefinite pronoun that I'd generally use on and not really need to specify who I'm talking about before using it in casual conversation.

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    It would be very unusual in telling a story that the use of "we" would be entirely without context. The story would normally give the listener hints about who "we" referred to by the time it was used. Commented Jun 11 at 8:43
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    "we" can refer to many different things - my family, me and my friends, me and the person I'm speaking to, the people of my nation, the human race. Generally this is provided by the context, in any language.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jun 11 at 8:57
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    Compare this question about how to indicate clusivity, this closed question, and several more. All language contains ambiguity - Standard Chinese doesn't differentiate he and she in spoken language, but that hasn't stopped Chinese society from functioning, and you don't need to explain the gender of the person you're talking about every time you say "ta".
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jun 11 at 9:00
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    So, yes, obviously, the example might be a bit too contrived through my attempt of giving the simplest possible example. Obviously, this would be when talking to someone and in the course of the conversation that person mentioning let's say a restaurant in Shanghai (say Ming Court) and replying with "When we lived in Shanghai, we often liked going to that particular restaurant.". If the person is close enough to know who I had been living with in Shanghai, would identifying who is included in the we prior to using the we be needed? Commented Jun 11 at 19:13
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    It is common in everyday conversation to use 'we' rather than 'I' in recounting casual stories about oneself, even if the interlocutor is not well known or acquainted with who 'we' specifically means. 'We' might mean any type of company associated with oneself on the occasion being narrated. It is common idiom.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Jun 12 at 2:37

2 Answers 2

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If the person is close enough to know who I had been living with in Shanghai, would identifying who is included in the we prior to using the we be needed?

No. In fact, as you seem to have noticed, the referent of we doesn't even need to be particularly definite; we English speakers often use we when you French speakers might use on. Or perhaps I should say in the anglophone world one tends to use we where in French one would more likely say on.

The sentence you've asked about contains we twice. To illustrate the indefinite we, consider _When I was in school we often used to sneak out for ice cream." This does not imply that the same set of people did this every time.

I've been wondering for a while if native English speakers will always give contextual cues or clarify before using an exclusive we or if it's assumed that the interlocutor will pick it up automatically.

As the previous example shows, there are other options. In that case, it denotes members of a group to which the speaker belongs and it means that the speaker participated at least sometimes. It's also possible that the other members of "we" are in fact consistently the same but their identity is unimportant.

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M-W explains that:

In first-person narration, the narrator is a person in the story, telling the story from their own point of view. The narration usually utilizes the pronoun I (or we, if the narrator is speaking as part of a group).

Since pronouns are used instead of nouns, we is no exception. It will surely have a referent, although in a literary work it may be more or less ambiguous, expressed from the beginning or guessed afterwards from the ensuing context.

For example, if a novel starts with this sentence:

We will take off in a few minutes.

you can't know for sure if we refers to the person of the narrator and another person/persons accompanying them or the whole group of people in the plane, unless you read on.

But if you intend your story to be clear, you can't let the ambiguity linger for too long. You must clarify it at least implicitly. Otherwise the reader loses the thread and is no longer aware of the point of view you are trying to convey.

So, yes, the use of pronouns in storytelling does rely on context. Dave Chesson at Kindlepreneur warns that:

Inconsistent point of view is one of the top things a professional editor has to proofread and correct. If that mistake makes it through to readers, they may leave negative reviews about how unprofessional and confusing the book is. Point of view is necessary to understand.

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  • The question seems to be about casual conversation, not formal writing.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jun 11 at 15:21
  • I think the same general rule of ambiguity applies to a certain extent.
    – fev
    Commented Jun 11 at 15:29
  • True, but the nature of the conversation will usually establish the context that removes the ambiguity. You don't need some explicit exposition like you might in a written story. E.g. if you come back from a trip, and start describing it with "we", the listener will know you mean all your traveling companions.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jun 11 at 15:37
  • Yes, that's why I said "at least implicitly", which covers what you are saying. Context can be situational, not necessarily expressed in words, I agree.
    – fev
    Commented Jun 11 at 15:47
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    "We will take off in a few minutes" is more likely to be inclusive we, not exclusive.
    – phoog
    Commented Jun 11 at 22:10

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