By Robert Bloomfield.
We all behave according to the conventions of our age and in this respect Wilkins was no exception. As an editor, I am interested in his writing style, and last week the question of the use of ‘one’ raised its interesting profile.
Wilkins used the ‘false first-personal ONE’ fairly regularly in his writing; for example:
The whole thing is so immense and astounding that one is lost for words to describe it.
Here, ‘one’ appears to be substituting for ‘I’ and could just as easily be written as:
The whole thing is so immense and astounding that I am lost for words to describe it.
But as so often occurs in the language, and not only in English, word choices like this conceal some subtle nuances of meaning. ‘…one is lost for words…’ suggests not only that ‘I am lost for words’ but also that ‘you’ and even ‘people’ would be lost for words too.
To take another example, Wilkins in 1931 writes:
There was now the best kind of feed in abundance; but where was one to get the animals for restocking the ranges?
Here ‘one’ stands as a substitute for ‘they’ or ‘the farmers’. Wilkins’s use of ‘one’ is again nuanced: it shows an empathy which would otherwise be absent.
My final example is from a 1914 letter:
Fine company you will think I am keeping, but in this part of the globe it is not what one wants but what you can get that we have to do with.
Here Wilkins changes from ‘one’ to ‘you’ to ‘we’ in the space of one sentence. This is not very stylish writing but it is only a private letter and Wilkins can be excused. His use of ‘one’ suggests that everyone in ‘this part of the globe’ faces the same difficulty, and he uses the word to legitimate or distance his keeping of ‘fine company’. But ‘you’ would have done the same job, and arguably the sentence would convey the same message when expressed as:
Fine company you will think I am keeping, but in this part of the globe it is not what you want but what you can get that you have to do with.
Switching from ‘one’ to ‘you’ to ‘we’ in a sentence or even in a section is not recommended. Even in 1926 Fowler warns against it, but certainly does not proscribe the use of ‘one’. In many modern style guides writers are advised to avoid the use of ‘one’ altogether, but as the examples above show, it sometimes plays a valuable role.