Date: Tue, 11 Nov 1997 09:52:11 EST


Subject: Re: one as a pronoun?

Robert Ness writes,

"One" as indefinite is not foreign, or at least not recent. It's been

around since late ME (see Chaucer's The Miller's Tale:" The carpenter out

of his slumber sterte/ And herde oon crien 'water!' as he were wood"

[1A.3816-7]). "One replaced the OE indefinite "man" (still used in

german), as in "man stearf" (someone died). The French indefinite probably

had something to do with this change. One need not like it though.

Actually, this example from Chaucer involves 'one' in the sense of 'some

(specific but unspecified) person', not in the modern sense of 'anyone'.

In fact the OED distinguishes this stressed 'one', largely archaic (e.g.

'This month one went by land to Connecticut, and returned safe'--Winthrop,

1649, to choose a citation geographically appropriate for the present writer)

from the 'any one of everybody, including the speaker' sense, unstressed, of

the current (formal) language. The latter first appears in 1477: 'He herde

a man say that one was surer in keping his tunge, than in moche speaking, for

in moche langage one may lightly erre'--Earl Rivers. [Are you listening, Marv

Albert?] Interestingly, the OED goes on to observe that for referring back to

a 'one' antecedent, both 'him/his/himself' and 'one/one's/oneself' are

possibilities, while "The pl. prons. THEIR, THEM, THEMSELVES, were formerly

in general use on account of their indefiniteness of gender, but this is now

considered ungrammatical."