I don’t know about you, but I find it a bit off-putting when I see the term one overused in literature and conversation:
One could choose from soles of leather, resin…and, one hoped, eco-friendly in origin…although why one would purchase tap shoes without taps didn’t make such sense.
Like, when are you going to put a real pronoun in?
On the other hand, perhaps one is talking about the human race and not about a specific person. What’s one to do then?
In light of a query from one of my subscribers about using one in a sentence, and I decided to expand on it here.
Here are some questions that come up with the one issue:
- When do we use one, and for what type of prose?
- What are some alternatives to one?
- Can one mix and match pronouns in the same sentence or paragraph?
We’ll go over these one (!) by one. But first, a short overview.
The pronoun one: an overview
The pronoun one is called a generic pronoun, a gender-neutral pronoun, an indefinite pronoun, and an impersonal pronoun. Take your pick.
It is often used in place of you, and sometimes it’s even used in place of I (see below). Many grammar pundits consider one to be more formal, nay, haughty.
Writers who are sensitive to gender issues use the pronoun one in order to avoid employing the male pronoun, i.e., he. Although you can be used as a gender-neutral pronoun as well, one seems to get the job done better when one wants a bit of distance between one and one’s readers, or when one is making an important point:
- A flight cancellation can really ruin one’s day.
- One must never give up.
Using the pronoun one
Many British authors use one extensively, even in casual conversation and even in contemporary fiction. Very often, the speaker uses it to refer to himself or herself (“the royal one“):
- It was just so difficult when one didn’t feel hunger.
- “One could tell from the first that it was only Missa he would ever care for.”
- “It’s beaten into one from childbirth.”
American authors, however, use mainly I, you, or a noun such as “a person” or “people.”
One can also be used to express general human behavior:
- One uses a spoon and not one’s hands to eat ice cream.
- Excessive drinking can potentially put one into an awkward position.
- A nice compliment from the teacher makes one work harder.
As I said above, you will notice that these sentences put a bit of distance between the speaker/writer and the listener/reader.
When is one appropriate?
You’ll get a feel for when to use the indefinite pronoun, and when not. Formal vs. informal is one yardstick. For instance, if you are writing about Marie Antoinette, you might want to say, “One is not amused” or “Let one eat cake.” There is also the cultural issue, as I mentioned, with regard to some British authors.
The use of one also works for instruction manuals and other pedagogic prose:
- One should be sure to turn off the electricity before one changes a light bulb.
- One doesn’t use curse words at the Vatican.
- If one is insensitive to the dog, it is likely to bite.
- After one says the blessing, one permitted to partake of the meal.
Are there alternatives to one?
Yes, there are. Here are four, based on the above sentences:
- Substitute one one with a gerund: “One should be sure to turn off the electricity before changing a light bulb.”
- Substitute the pronoun clause with a command: “Do not use curse words at the Vatican.”
- Use the passive case (sparingly): “Insensitive veterinarians will get bitten by their patients.”
- Use a different pronoun (and consider making the sentence less formal): “After you say the blessing, you can eat.”
Segueing into other pronouns
Sometimes, you can or must use more than one pronoun in a sentence. When I was working on an English translation of the Talmud, our team decided to go from one to he after only one one. We simply felt the sentences would sound better and be less “heavy.” Here’s an example:
If one performs any action without specification of intent, it is also considered as if he performed it expressly for its sake.
If you do decide to switch pronouns, make sure you go back to one when you get to a new subject. Here’s something I made up:
When one goes to the beach, she should put on suntan lotion. She might also consider using a beach umbrella. Her wallet can be kept underneath her towel. She’ll probably want to relax on her towel when she gets out of the water.
However, when one goes shopping, he should look at the prices of a few different options before deciding which product to buy. He will find that the products on the lower shelves are often cheaper than those at eye level. The healthiest food is displayed around the perimeter of the store, so he should begin his shopping experience there.
Other gender-neutral ideas
There are other alternatives to the use of one in a sentence, even when you are writing formally. For example, you can use a noun or “they.” Sometimes, just plain rewriting will solve all your problems. You can find out more about this here, in a post where I discuss gender-neutral pronouns.
Here’s the chart from that post:
You can get the chart for home use by clicking here.
One last thing
Keep a lookout for confusing sentences when using one:
If one complains, one needs to address the issue.
Now, does this mean that if an individual complains, he himself needs to figure out why he’s complaining? Or does it mean that if person X complains to person Y, the latter needs to deal with it?
It would be better to rewrite the sentence to be more specific, i.e., “If someone complains to you, you need to address the issue.” Or “If you complain, you need to figure out what is bothering you.”
Please let me know if you have any writing, editing, or grammar questions. I love tailoring my posts to what my tribe wants!
And as always,