Fascinating article “Rhetorical Pronouns and Namings” from WritingRhetorics says (among many other fascinating things):
Pronouns are keys to ethos (more on ethos in my appeals lesson). Anytime an author uses a first person pronoun (I, we, etc.) they draw attention to their position and persona. Using “I,” a person claims an individual stance, while “we” groups together others. This inclusive gesture can form community, as in the common example “We the people.” It can also make dissenters resistant, as when women and people of color have suggested that “we the people” has historically applied only to white men. Consider common responses such as “What we?” or “Who do you mean we?” These replies suggest that the speaker has overstepped their bounds in describing the views of others.
Removing “I” can hide responsibility, as in “the test kicked my ass,” which removes agency from the student who performed poorly to blame the test.
Getting to chose which pronouns to use is itself a powerful position. Diann Baecker analyzes the pronouns used in university syllabi, for example. She finds that “you” is the most prominent, but she also suggests instructors tend to mask power by using “we.” She cites research by Mühlhäusler and Harré that states, “We spreads the responsibility . . . We is a rhetorical device that allows the speaker(s) to distance themselves from whatever is being said, thus making it appear more palatable because it appears to come from the group as a whole rather than a particular individual” (Baecker 59).
Very worthwhile, and thoughtful, read.
Also, though not something I am doing right now, Teaching Titles looks good. Maybe for grad students writing conference papers.
2 thoughts on “Rhetoric of Pronouns”
I find it ironic that you mix pronoun references in this post: using “they” to refer to a singular subject, for example. Do you have a particular purpose in this?
This was almost all quoted. However, it may interest you to know that The Washington Post style book, now approves “they” as a singular. I would not be surprised if this becomes the norm over time.