1st, 2nd or 3rd person?

I never really thought that, in English, pronouns were a particular problem. We have I, you [previously thou], he/she/it, we, you and they. This seemed to cover most eventualities. However, I do observe various situations where people are challenged.

Think about small children’s development of language skills. I find the process absolutely fascinating. At this time, I have a few useful “subjects” - grandchildren and friends’ small offspring. I try to listen to how they attempt to express themselves and how that changes over time.

When children start to get a sense of “self”, they start talking about themselves and normally use their own name, as in “Freddy do it”; little Freddy is independent and wants to do it [whatever that is] himself. If a child is exposed to books - i.e. gets bedtime stories etc. - they start to hear the use of pronouns. So Freddy mights start to say “He do it”. Never mind about the verb usage; he has abstracted the subject. The next step is obviously to say “I do it”. This seems to take a while.

Why does the use of the 1st person [sometimes called perpendicular] pronoun not start sooner? I have a theory. How many children’s books are written in the first person? Answer: very few [if any!]. I am toying with the idea of rewriting a classic story this way - maybe Goldilocks and the Three Bears from the little girl’s perspective.

As adults, we would not normally use our own name or he/she to refer to ourselves, except possibly when talking to a small child, which is really quite unhelpful. We would normally just use I. However, there are times when we want to depersonalize what we are saying and that is challenging.

In French they have “on” and in German “man”, which translate to “one” in English. But saying “One eats one’s 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 recently. 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 one’s indefinite pronoun back. When does one want it? As soon as possible please.