In his On Language column for the New York Times, Ben Zimmer discusses the use of the first-person plural in writing, specifically the perceived motives of writers who use it. Zimmer acknowledges the use of the editorial “we” to create rapport with a community of readers, but reminds us that if the ploy fails, we may come off as pretentious (“We are not amused”), precious (“Are we happy now?”), or worse (see below).
Zimmer quotes sundry irascibles on the subject, including an admiral, a senator, and a preacher, with opinion editors a favorite target for hiding behind the authority of a larger, undefined “we” in their columns.
Admirals and senators are right to object, having especial responsibility not to throw around weight that isn’t theirs; their “we” implies the support of whole governments. A preacher’s “We” that hints at holy teamwork is possibly even more dangerous. Anyone with a platform of authority—editor, scholar, teacher—owes the audience a transparency that the use of “we” (like the use of the passive voice) can obscure.
I noted, however, that in his amusing account of objections to the editorial “we,” Zimmer does not call for a prohibition. “We” is a fine word with an honorable place in writing. It comes back to the idea of community that Zimmer mentions briefly, to the expression of ideas that a writer cannot rightly claim with an “I.” When a writer seeks to build consensus, or speak on behalf of a family or organization, or opine—as I do—from within a group of like-minded people without setting herself above it, the first-person plural is honest and apt.