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Chapter VII the pronoun


In the category of person English makes distinction between three classes of personal pronouns denoting respectively the person (s) speaking (first person); the person (s) spoken to (second person) another person(s) or thing(s) — third person.

Person distinctions are naturally closely related to the category of number.

There is no formal distinction of persons in plural, e. g.: we speak, you speak, they speak. There is no distinction of number in the 1st and 2nd persons either.

In point of fact, the binary opposition speak :: speaks in all English verbs, except the modal auxiliaries expresses the relation: 3rd person singular or any other person of both numbers. The exception to the patterns of conjugational variants is also the verb to be, whose paradigm is unique and includes five distinct finite forms: am, is, are, was, were.

Archaic verb-forms in -t or -st are generally associated with the old pronoun thou. These are unproductive in Modern English and used only in religious texts and occasionally for stylistic purposes in elevated speech or poetry. Thou and ye were formerly often shifted to express the speaker's mood and tone. The "thou of contempt" was so very familiar that a verbal form was coined to name this expressive use. Shakespeare gives it, for instance, to Sir Toby Belch (Twelfth Night) in the lines urging Andrew Aguecheek to send a challenge to the disguised Viola: "Taunt him with the license of ink, if thou thous't him some thrice, it shal not be amiss 1" Proteus and Valentine in Two Gentlemen of Verona initially exchange thou, but when they touch on the subject of love, on which they disagree, their address changes to the "you of estrangement".

Like in other provinces of grammar, attention must be drawn to the use of pronominal forms in transposition. The affective value of such "metaphors" may be traced in many, if not all, modern languages. The first to be mentioned in English is the use of the pronouns we, you and they in patterns where they are synonymous with the formal generic one.

The so-called "editorial" we (Lat. pluralis modestial) is well known, for instance, as used in many modern languages by authors of scientific papers, monographs or articles in a newspaper, etc. Examples are hardly needed.

1 Quoted in: Style in Language ed. by T h. A. S e b e о k. New York-London, 1860.


The pronoun we is common in proverbial sayings:

We shall see what we shall see. We soon believe what we desire. We never know the value of water till the well is dry.

Cf. Это случится при одном единственном условии,— если мы все — от мала до велика — удвоим и утроим темпы нашей оборонной работы, если каждый из нас — от мала до велика — поймет, что каждый час, тобой потерянный для оборонного труда, будет стоить жизни твоего брата на фронте. (А. Толстой)

Expressive effects of great subtlety will be found in the use of the pronoun we in such examples as:

"I say", said Hurstwood, as they came up the theatre lobby, "we are exceedingly charming this evening".

Carrie fluttered under his approving glance. (Dreiser)

Cf. Ukrainian: Ну, як ми себе почуваємо сьогодні? Russian: Ну, как мы себя чувствуем сегодня? French: Se porte-on mieux aujourd'hui?

The pronoun we is often used when speaking, for instance, to ones-pet child or to a sick person with playfully optimistic emotional colour-ing. The shift of the pronominal form expresses a shift in the speaker attitude and tone. Here again we must say that this recurrent feature 's not specifically English and may easily be traced in other modern languages, e. g.: How are we feeling now? (we you).

Discussing some tendencies of the present times, E. Partridge1 gives examples of adding to one's reply a declaration in the third person, e. g., in response to,, Do you like that?"we hear the person addressed say "No, said he frowning!"

Further examples are:

"Mr. Grundy's going to oblige the company with a song", said the Chairman.

"No he ain't", said Mr. Grundy.

"Why not?", said the chairman.

"Because he can't", said Mr. Grundy.

"You had better say you won't", replied the chairman.

"Well, then, he won't", retorted Mr. Grundy. (Dickens)

Nursery talk is known to have its traditional characteristics; mothers and fathers, aunts and grannies are liable to address children using the third person instead of the second, as will he (or she) do it. Examples of this kind may be found in numbers.

The generic use of the pronoun you will be found in any sphere of application. It is common in colloquial English, in literary prose, in proverbial sayings:

You never can tell. You can't eat your cake and have it.

You cannot judge a tree by its bark, etc.

1 See: E. Partridge. Slang Today and Yesterday. London, 1960, p. 123.


Emotional colouring is particularly strong in you with its more or less apparent appeal to the person spoken to, as in:

"Now and then? Mr. Croom, didn't you always show your feelings?" If you mean did I always show that I was in love with her of course I did, you can't hide a thing like that". (Galsworthy)

"I'm ancient, but I don't feel it. That's one thing about painting, it keeps you young". (Galsworthy)

And here is a good example from J. London to illustrate that the generic you and one are not interchangeable when used in this function:

"By the way, Mr. Eden", she called back, as she was leaving the room, "what is booze? You used it several times, you know".

"Oh, booze", he laughed. "It's slang. It means whiskey and beer anything that will make you drunk".

"And another thing", she laughed back. "Don't use 'you' when you are impersonal. You' is very personal, and your use of it just now was not precisely what you meant".

"I don't just see that".

" Why, you said just now to me, 'whiskey and beer anything that will make you drunk' make me drunk, don't you see?"

"Well, it would, wouldn't it?"

"Yes, of course", she smiled. "But it would be nicer not to bring me into it. Substitute 'one' for 'you', and see how much better it sounds". (London)

With reference either to an unspecified person or to people in general we may also use the pronoun they. It is important to observe that in spoken English you implies reference to the speaker or those with whom he identifies himself, they — reference to people with whom the speaker does not identify himself, e. g.: No tree, no shrub, not a blade of grass, not a bird or beast, not even a fish that was not owned. And once on a time all this was jungle and marsh and water, and weird creatures roamed and sported without human cognisance to give them names... Well! They had got it under, kennelled it all up, labelled it, and stowed it in lawyers' offices. (Galsworthy)

They used as a generic pronoun usually refers to some persons unknown and is often highly emotional denoting that the speaker dissociates himself and the person addressed from the situation, e. g.:

My poor little girl, what have they been doing to you?

Analogous is the use of the French pronoun ils, e. g.:

Mais Pied-d'Alouette parla et dit:

Ils m'ont pris mon couteau.

Qui cela?1

The generic they may alternate with the word people patterning similarly with generic force, e. g.:

Mrs. Candour. Very true child: but what's to be done? People will talk there is no preventing it. (Sheridan)

Compare the use of the German pronoun sie in analogous transposition:

1 See: P. Г. Пиотровский. Очерки по грамматической стилистике французского языка. М., 1956, р. 136.


Ihm haben sie das Auto gestohlen. = Ihm hat man das Auto gestohlen 1.

The pronoun they with reference to indefinite persons is sometimes used with demonstrative force, e. g.:

They must hunger in winter that will not work in summer. (proverb)

The shift of the pronominal form expresses a shift in the speaker's attitude and tone. Here again we must say that this recurrent feature is not specifically English. Other languages present similar phenomena.

In Russian and Ukrainian the generic use of verb-forms in the 2nd person singular and plural without a pronominal indicator is a well known stylistic device, e. g.:

«Комуністом стати можна тільки тоді, коли збагатиш свою пам'ять знанням всіх тих багатств, які виробило людство». (В. І. Ленін)

«Песню дружбы запевает молодежь,

молодежь, молодежь.

«Эту песню не задушишь, не убьешь,

не убьешь, не убьешь».

(«Гимн демократической молодежи мира»)

Cf. Сонце! Сонце! Це тебе, довічний світе, стріваючи, вітає земля... Прокинулась світова мати, показала нам личенько красне... Ви почуваєте, що ви частина того світу, невеличка цяточка його живого тіла, непримітний куточок його безмірної душі. (П. Мирний)

1 E. Agricola, H. Görner, R. Кülfner. Wörter und Wendungen. Wörterbuch zum deutschen Sprachgebrauch. Leipzig, 1963, p. 546.

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