Me and We | Opinion | Salt Lake City Weekly

Me and We 

Wanna fool around with Emily Dickinson?

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I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us—don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.

—Emily Dickinson

Wanna fool around with Emily Dickinson? Try this: Change "nobody" to "Democrat" to elicit a knowing smile from long-suffering lefties after another session of Utah's Star Chamber Legislature. Or you could substitute "gay Mormon" for "nobody" and get a smile from no one. My interests lie in a different direction, however. Today, it's pronouns.

Bear with me.

In 1975, Mohammad Ali gave the commencement address at Harvard University. Renowned for his wit as well as his "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee" boxing prowess, Ali was interrupted by a student shouting, "Give us a poem!" Obligingly, he interrupted his speech on friendship, pointed to himself and said, "me." Then, pointing to the audience, he said "we." Not quite Dickinsonian but not bad for impromptu verse—two assonant syllables, paired pronouns and a crowd-pleasing example of the I-to-we transition examined in James Pennebaker's 2011 book, The Secret Life of Pronouns.

Like you, I pay no more attention to pronouns than I do to articles like "a" and "the." I have tried to remember my first insight into the implications of first- and third-person pronouns. What comes to mind is the 1960s joke about the Lone Ranger and his faithful sidekick, Tonto. The two men find themselves in a firefight with hundreds of hostile Native Americans. As he loads his last silver bullet, the Lone Ranger says, "We're done for, Tonto." To which Tonto replies, "What do you mean we, white man?"

A better I-to-we example also predates Pennebaker's book. I read it in Chapter 14 of The Grapes of Wrath. In the novel, Steinbeck dramatizes how the elite class—the 1-percenters who own the banks, the used-car lots and the grocery stores—manipulate workers' self-interest to gain advantage. The implicit goal is to prevent an I-to-we transformation—from "I am hungry" to "We are hungry"—with its potential to generate political and economic power. Steinbeck scorns the moneyed, owner class because "the quality of owning freezes [them] forever into 'I' and cuts [them] off forever from the 'we.'"

It is hard to imagine anyone but Ebenezer Scrooge and Ted Cruz being frozen in "I," unwarmed by the congenial "we." Nevertheless, "I" is the most frequently used word in the English language by far. "We" doesn't make the top 20 most-used-words list, but "my," "he," "it" and "you" do. I-words (I, me, my) signal self-attention, Pennebaker writes. That's why women use them more than men. Research confirms women are "more self-aware and self-focused" than are men. When it comes to the we-words (we, us, our), both sexes use them at about the same rate.

"We" is the chameleon of pronouns, according to Pennebaker. For the most part "we" reflects connection, but it also can be used as a backhanded directive, for example: "We need to stop bickering." The Royal We is used by such high-ranking people as Queen Elizabeth and Pope Francis in place of "I," and the Ambiguous We is a favorite of politicians as in, "We need to make this country great again." (Who? Me? You?) But "we" can also trip up politicians as John Kerry found in 2004. As a campaigner, he came across as aloof and disingenuous. In short, not a guy you would want to have a beer with. Kerry's image-conscious advisers insisted that he use fewer I-words and more we-words in his speeches. That was bad advice, according to Pennebaker. Politicians using I-words seem honest and personal; those using we-words "sound cold, rigid and emotionally distant"—unless you are Bernie Sanders! Hillary Clinton dispensed with "I" during the Nevada caucus.

Dickinson, too, dabbles in ambiguity. She uses the I-to-we transition to get us closeted nobodies introduced before the faceless "they" arrives on the scene as menacing as Gayle Ruzicka.

Ruzicka, who believes organizations like the Utah Pride Center pose a threat to society, will go nuts when she learns that "they" is morphing into a gender-neutral pronoun. (She might not have noticed that Facebook now offers more than 50 gender options beyond "male" and "female.") For those who don't identify as either he or she, "they" is more and more the pronoun of choice as in, "LaVar was happy to find their seat in-between Molly's and Emma's." The change is so significant that the American Dialect Society (ADS) recognized "they" as the 2015 Word of the Year. In doing so, the ADS noted that "they" is also becoming acceptable as a singular pronoun. I saw an example in a recent edition of the Westminster College newspaper, The Forum. An opinion piece by Avenel Rolfsen had sentences like this: "No one in my family has faced violence because of their skin color." Sure, that's the way most of us talk, but we old-timers were taught by English teachers to write, "... because of his skin color." Now, in the post-feminist age of "Ms.," we write, "... because of his or her skin color." Microsoft's grammar checker still prefers "his or her."

"Most pronouns are, by definition, social," Pennebaker writes. "Words such as "we," "you," "she" and "they" tell us that the speaker is aware of and thinking about other human beings." The self-aware Ms. Dickinson makes the point in 26 words, almost half of which are pronouns. The little, unpretentious words describe an I-to-we arc that takes us from the solitary to the communal. The playful tone of the verse makes nobodies of every stripe feel more connected and more secure.

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