Indefinite

I have a boundless interest in language and communication and have written on the topic before [here and here, for example]. I always feel lucky and privileged to have English as my native tongue, as the language has such enormous flexibility. Apart from having such wide usage, there are always lots of ways to say things and more vocabulary available than with any other language.

But there is one thing lacking – a facility which I feel we should nurture and revive: indefinite pronouns …

In case you have forgotten what they taught you about grammar in school [or, if you are English, were never taught it!], here is a quick refresher:

A noun is the word for a thing – like a book, a child or the sky. A verb is a “doing word” – like read, grow and look. A verb has a subject and may have an object. In the sentence “The man eats the food”, “the man” is the subject and “the food” is the object. A pronoun is a generalized replacement for a noun – like he, it and them. An indefinite pronoun refers to no particular person and this is where we have trouble.

In French they have “on” and in German “man”, which translate to “one” in English. But saying “One eats ones lunch”, whilst entirely correct, does sound very arcane [or, in England, like you are doing an impression of Prince Charles]. This is unfortunate, as we then go to great lengths to say the same thing and usually introduce ambiguity in the process.

One strategy is to use passive voice, where the object of the verb becomes the subject, in effect. For example, in certain places you might see a sign which says “Ici, on parle Francais”, which can be literally translated to “Here, one speaks French”. But we would be more likely to say “French is spoken here.” This is not too much of a problem, as no ambiguity results, but it is awkward.

At other times, we simply use another pronoun – normally they or you. So you might hear “They say it will get colder.” Or you might be told “You can get good fish here”, which does not mean that you personally and exclusively can make such a purchase, but anyone can.

I was listening to an interview on the radio this morning. The interviewee was asked how he coped with a difficult experience and he said “You knew that there was danger, but you just hoped for the best.” He could have said “I knew…”, but he was trying to be less egocentric. Ideally he would have said “One knew…” As it was, I was confused about whose experience he was discussing.

What does one want? One wants ones indefinite pronoun back. When does one want it? As soon as possible please.

Leave a Reply

This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at https://blogs.sw.siemens.com/embedded-software/2010/01/28/indefinite/