Re: US vs. UK pronoun/voice usage?

Subject: Re: US vs. UK pronoun/voice usage?
From: Neal Dench <ndench -at- yahoo -dot- com>
To: Janet_Swisher -at- trilogy -dot- com
Date: Tue, 09 Nov 1999 09:27:07 +0000

Janet_Swisher -at- trilogy -dot- com wrote:

> I've recently been reading a large quantity of source material from an SME
> who happens to be British. (My company is located in Austin, Texas, USA.)
> One thing I've noticed in his text is that he routinely uses the pronoun
> "one", combined with passive voice, as in the following example:
> For each view one wants to appear as a child item, the view must be
> added to the collection.


> But this SME's consistent use of this particular style, combined with my
> stereotype of Brits makes me wonder whether this is a reflection of
> cultural differences. I have the impression that the British view
> Americans as being overly forward and over-friendly, and that they prefer
> more interpersonal distance than Americans are inclined to assume. I
> wonder if this SME's style is a way of creating a respectful distance
> between the writer and the reader. I also wonder if documents written in
> the style I prefer would not travel well to Britain.
> I know this list has correspondents in the UK. Any of y'all :-) care to
> set me straight? (Gently, please.) For what it's worth, yes, I have
> visited the UK.

Hi Janet,

Speaking as a British tech writer living in the UK, I would say stick with what

you're doing. Yes, very often British usage is to generalise using "one", but I

would say it's more of a conversational thing, and over-use leads to language
that sounds affected, even to a British ear. In particular, I would definitely
not expect to see it in any kind of technical writing, other than perhaps an
academic paper or a report of some kind (and even then I'd "tut" loudly).

If I saw the sentence you describe, I would reword it to use active voice and
second person. I would use imperative too, depending on the context. I can see
some situations where people would object to the use of second person
(technical references, for instance). Personally, I don't agree with that, but
if I really had to stick to third person, I would still never use "one".

Disclaimer: I may be a Brit, but I have written manuals in US English now for
most of my career. Though I still believe that I do UK English first, and then
edit myself (awkwardly) to use US English afterwards, it's possible that some
of my UK sensibilities have become tarnished over time.

Neal Dench
ndench at // dench at

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