Tuesday, August 24, 2004


While describing a train ride, I said We stopped at Coliseum station, and a bunch of Raiders fans boarded. Only a sentence or two later did I think: what we?

Mathematicians use we when writing proofs, even if the proof is not joint work. Supposedly the we in this case refers to the reader who will carefully follow the author's arguments; but I doubt many mathematicians deliberately choose we, any more than we deliberately choose the imperative voice when we write let n be an integer or suppose not. For good or ill, proofs are conventionally written in a particular style, and we is part of the style.

But I formed the we habit long before I started writing proofs. When Mom asked what I'd done during a day of elementary school, I would say we ate lunch; and we had recess... Everyone else in the class was doing the same thing as me, at the same time, sometimes even in cooperation with me. And so I said we.

And now? I stare into space; I went for a walk this evening. But if there is any hint that someone else might be staring into space at the same time, or going for a walk in the same direction, I'll revert to we.

If this seems like a lot of hot wind for a two-letter pronoun, consider the following line from an e-mail I sent during a coffee break this afternoon:

Hack hack hack. Boing boing. Hack. Boing. Um.

The response? Dude. Which is another very interesting word...