Thomas Russell Wingate
December 2010, March 2012
In Anne of the Thousand Days (1969) Henry VIII says:
Your health is very dear to us.
By “us” Henry meant himself.
Monarchs—kings, emperors, popes, dalai lamas—speak that way. According to themselves, it is their undeniable prerogative. In public, they invariably use it. No one else is allowed (by them) to be an “us” or a “we.”
Writers need to know that this matter is delicate always, explosive often.
In state papers and pronouncements, the “royal we” is often capitalized for the sake of greater weight.
It is Our pleasure that the King’s Own Riflemen of Ceylon be distinguished from Our other soldiers by the wearing of a distinctive headgear, to wit: …
The “editorial we” is a circumlocution. “In the opinion of this newspaper (six to four)…” has less force than “we note that…”
No one confuses it with “we, the undersigned…”
Revolutions have been about pronouns.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident…” is more about who does the holding than about what is held.
No one will confuse it with something in Euclid: “These propositions are self-evident…”
The Declaration of Independence, in calibrated discourtesy, does not name the king it condemns and cashiers. In self-elevation, the Americans are mentioned in the first person plural, exactly as though they were (collectively) any monarch’s equal. The king is merely “he”—not “His Britannic Majesty,” as men with less backbone might have called him.
This passage might have appeared in any of a thousand royal declarations over the centuries.
We must, therefore, acquiesce in the Necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of Mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace, Friends.
The deep thinkers in London knew right away that this meant a lot more than “we, the undersigned…”
And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.
The “vertical pronoun” is missing.
Sovereigns avoid using it. The American People were announcing and exercising their sovereignty.
“We” is used here as a hammer drives a nail.
What is the very first word in the Constitution? Is it there by accident?
“We the People” differs from “The People” in the pronoun used in the formalities of sovereigns. Removing the famous “we” would not damage the grammar or the sense, but the remnant would fail to assert sovereignty.
(Modern grammarians call this the subtext.)
Masters of language and events did not write this:
We the peoples of the United Nations determined…
And for these ends…
Have resolved to combine our efforts to accomplish these aims.
(Those blessed with penetration call this the pretext.)
In language and concepts, the Declaration of the Right of Man and of the Citizen (Paris, 1789) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Paris, 1948) are parent and child.
It has been argued that the Declaration of Independence (1776) was written in large part to impress European powers. Why, then, does it contain not one word of French? Why was no French translation emitted at the same time?
The Constitution (1787) and its twenty-seven amendments (1791–1992) get by without any French. The reason is plain: no French ideas underlie American institutions.
(Three almost unnoticeable Latin phrases—habeas corpus, pro tempore, ex post facto—are in the Constitution because English legal tradition had incorporated them. The Articles of Confederation (1777) speak of “Letters of Marque or Reprisal”; ten years later, the Constitution speaks of “Letters of Marque and Reprisal.” The French word had become an English legal term having to do with admiralty law.)
Look to Scotland instead.
The Koran fiercely and without deviation asserts the One-ness of God.
When Allah Himself is speaking, He refers to Himself in the divine plural. No question about it: Allah demands your respect.
A translator tells us: “God speaks in the first person plural, which often changes to the first person singular or the third person singular in the course of the same sentence.”
I, for one, have never found this confusing.
It is not a contradiction for the One True God, speaking to us all, to describe Himself as “We.” This is the usage of majesty, of dominance, of reverence.
When speaking to God, no one says—or dares to say—“Hey, you!”
He is self-respecting. So, also, should you be.
Reverential capitalization should be brought back. Modern translations¹ of the Bible are making a big mistake by failing to use it.
Let Us make Man in Our image, after Our likeness; … (Genesis 1:26)
So God created Man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them. (Genesis 1:27)
Right away, a change of tone:
And God said, Behold, I have given you… (Genesis 1:29)
Scholars distinguish scribal redactions by the presence or absence of the divine plural.² This is not submerged polytheism, as some argue; rather, it is a courtly style honoring irremovable hierarchy.
Moses asks the Almighty by what name He is known. Moses is told: I AM THAT I AM. (Exodus 3:14) The answer is stark, bold, and singular. You cannot call it less than majestic.
What words ring with power depends on the situation and the audience.
Wouldn’t you expect the Eternal to have its own speech code?
And shouldn’t the very best English pay it reverence?
For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given: and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and His Name shall be callèd Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6).
Handel and Jennens put that in Messiah (1741). Try this in its place.
Look at this kid. He’ll take over the government some day and set things right. No one will ever replace him. Won’t that be something!
You can taste, you can touch, you can hear what is embedded in these specimens. You already know which will soon be forgotten.
The use of reverential capitalization need not imply that the writer believes in the divinity he is describing.
In A History of Western Philosophy Bertrand Russell, no friend to religions, refers to “Christ and His teaching.” As a writer of great precision, he knew that “Jesus and his teaching” falls flat in comparison, reducing the Good News to the level of a good bargain. That single capital “H” implies a large reservoir of faith, the subtext Russell expected his readers to notice.
The serious writer must think his way inside the words he is reading, writing, learning, deploying, or repurposing.
Languages associated with religions—Latin, Hebrew, Sanskrit—need not be explored. Our magpie English has all the spiritual resources it needs.
1 The King James Version rejected reverential capitalization
because Catholics were (and still are) fond of it. The careful
and highly readable Original Order Bible (2007) uses
reverential capitalization—as well it should—to convey the
now-ancient writings’ flavor, strength, and meanings.
2 Christ did not use it. Christ wrote no book.
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