In modern writing, you might see one used as a pronoun. What does this formal word mean, and should you use it in your own writing?
In this post, we’ll look at how to use the pronoun one and see if it still has a place in modern English.
The History of the Pronoun One
One has been used as a third-person pronoun in English since the 15th century.
It’s often used as a pronoun to refer to any person. This means it’s usually found in statements that express something about people in general, rather than someone specific. For example:
When serving tea, one must always provide sugar.
One should never leave the house without an umbrella.
One can only imagine.
When used as a possessive pronoun, it takes the form one’s:
One must always check one’s spelling.
And as a reflexive pronoun, it becomes oneself’:
One must look after oneself.
One VS. You
Nowadays, while using one as a pronoun is grammatically correct, it can seem overly formal, outdated, and awkward. You certainly wouldn’t hear it in casual conversation, or even in most contemporary formal writing!
In modern English, most writing tends to use the third-person plural pronoun you instead of one when referring to a general subject.
When one is popular, one never knows when to expect visitors.
When you are popular, you never know when to expect visitors.
In the example above, the second sentence sounds far less formal than the first.
However, using you can sometimes cause problems. For example:
When there’s work to be done, you want to avoid it.
This sentence might seem like it is accusing the reader of being lazy. This can be fixed by using the less accusatory one instead:
When there’s work to be done, one wants to avoid it.
And if you’re writing a piece of historical fiction or a formal document, such as a legal paper, one may be a more appropriate choice than you.
“Imagine traveling anywhere on foot,” said Lord Friedrich from atop his prancing stallion. “One shudders to think what one might step in.”
In most cases, though, it’s better to use the pronoun you instead.
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