One is a pronoun in the English language. It is a gender-neutral, indefinite pronoun, meaning roughly "a person". For purposes of verb agreement it is a third-person singular pronoun, although it is sometimes used with first- or second-person reference. It is sometimes called an impersonal pronoun. It is more or less equivalent to the Scots 'a body', the French pronoun on, the German/Scandinavian man, and the Spanish uno. It has the possessive form one's and the reflexive form oneself.
The word one as a numeral can also be put to use as a pronoun, as in one was clean and the other was dirty, and it can also be used as a prop-word, forming pronominal phrases with other determiners, as in the one, this one, my one, etc. This article, however, concerns the use of one as an indefinite pronoun as described in the preceding paragraphs.
One may have come into use as an imitation of French on. French on derives from Latin homo, nominative singular for human, through Old French hom[me]. It is distinct from the French word for the numeral one, un(e). One is related to old Norse einn, Old German ein and Latin unus.
Forms and usage
One may be used as the subject of a verb, but (unlike French on and German man) it can also be used in other grammatical positions, like in Swedish. It occurs most commonly in general statements, which are true of any person, not of any specified person. It may nonetheless sometimes be used with the intention that it be construed as referring to the speaker (as in the case of the "royal one" described below), or as referring to the listener. (The latter type of usage is not so frequent with the English one as with the French on, for example.)
Examples of its use:
- As grammatical subject:
- One cannot help but grow older.
- If one were to fail, that would be unfortunate.
- As verbal object:
- Drunkenness makes one unreliable.
- As the complement of a preposition:
- A reputation travels with one.
- As an indirect object:
- That dead-end job at least gives one a chance to develop as a person.
- One's experiences shape one's expectations.
Unlike the possessive forms of the personal pronouns (its, hers, etc.), one's is written with the apostrophe. There is no second form analogous to hers, yours, mine, etc. for use without a following noun, and in fact one's is not normally used in that position (such sentences as one's is broken, I sat on one's, I broke one's, etc. are not standard English).
There is also a reflexive form of one, namely oneself, for example:
- To quit smoking is like giving oneself a raise.
This must refer back to one, not to any other subject (a sentence such as one exhausts oneself is correct, but a person exhausts oneself is not).
Monarchs, people of higher classes, and today particularly Queen Elizabeth II, are often depicted as using one as a first-person pronoun. This is frequently done as a form of caricature by the press whenever they refer to the Queen or senior members of the Royal Family. For example, the headline "One is not amused" is attributed humorously to her, implicitly making reference to Queen Victoria's supposed statement "We are not amused", containing instead the royal we. Another example, near the end of 1992, which was a difficult year for the British royal family, as the Queen famously quipped "Annus horribilis", the tabloid newspaper The Sun published a headline, "One's Bum Year!"
For repeated one
In formal English, once the indefinite pronoun one is used, the same pronoun (or its supplementary forms one's, oneself) must continue to be used consistently – it is not considered correct to replace it with another pronoun such as he or she. For example:
- One can glean from this whatever one may.
- If one were to look at oneself, one's impression would be...
However, some speakers find this usage overly formal and stilted, and do replace repeated occurrences of one with a personal pronoun, most commonly the generic he:
- One can glean from this whatever he may.
- If one were to look at himself, his impression would be...
Another reason for inserting a third-person pronoun in this way may sometimes be to underline that one is not intended to be understood as referring particularly to the listener or to the speaker. A problem with the generic he, however, is that it may not be viewed as gender-neutral; this may sometimes be avoided by using singular they instead, although this is in itself viewed as ungrammatical by many purists (particularly when the question arises of whether its reflexive form should be themselves or themself).
Examples are also found, particularly in the spoken language, where a speaker switches mid-sentence from the use of one to the generic you (its informal equivalent, as described in the following section). This type of inconsistency is strongly criticized by language purists.
For one in general
A common and less formal alternative to the indefinite pronoun one is generic you, used to mean not the listener specifically, but people in general.
- One needs to provide food for oneself and one's family. (formal)
- You need to provide food for yourself and your family. (informal if used with the meaning of the above sentence)
When excluding oneself, one can use the generic they:
- In Japan they work extremely hard, often sacrificing comfort for themselves and their families.
Other techniques that can be used to avoid the use of one, in contexts where it seems over-formal, include use of the passive voice, pluralizing the sentence (so as to talk about "people", for example), use of other indefinite pronouns such as someone or phrases like "a person" or "a man", and other forms of circumlocution.
Occasionally, the pronoun one as considered here may be avoided so as to avoid ambiguity with other uses of the word one. For example, in the sentence If one enters two names, one will be rejected, the second one may refer either to the person entering the names, or to one of the names.
- "The Uses of One". Guide to Grammar and Writing. Retrieved 15 May 2014.
- "One", entry in The Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, edited by John Simpson and Edmund Weiner, Clarendon Press, 1989, twenty volumes, hardcover, ISBN 0-19-861186-2.
- Emilia Di Martino, Monica Pavani, "Common and Uncommon Readers: Communication among Translators and Translation Critics at Different Moments of the Text's Life". In Authorial and Editorial Voices in Translation 1: Collaborative Relationships between Authors, Translators, and Performers, Hanne Jansen and Anna Wegener (eds.), Montréal: Éditions québécoises de l’œuvre, collection Vita Traductiva, 2013.
- "One is not amused", metro.co.uk, 25 October 2014.
- Katie Wales, Personal Pronouns in Present-Day English, CUP 1996, p. 81.