Who’s on First, and Are We on Second? Using First-Person Pronouns Like a Pro

Abbott & Costello Stamp
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This month’s blog post is inspired by a recent e-mail from one of my advisor friends: “Hi, communications expert.” (He was off to a great start!) “Can I get your thoughts on whether it would be better to use ‘I’ or ‘we’ in the [project]? As a sole proprietor, I struggle with this periodically; perhaps you do, too.  Sometimes I come down on one side, sometimes on the other.”

 What’s in a Name?

Even before Abbott and Costello pitched their familiar “Who’s on First, What’s on Second” routine, naming conventions on who we are as authors have amused and confused us in our personal and professional communications. And by the way, it’s not just a conundrum for sole proprietors. Larger firms face similar challenges. Large or small, you’re still a gathering of individual characters with individual viewpoints to air and share.

Rules of Thumb

Unfortunately, unless you happen to be the Queen Mum, there is no universal standard to dictate when you are an “I/my/me” and when you should revert to the royal “us/our/we” in representing yourself and your firm to your audience. To some extent it’s a business style preference, but here are my rules of thumb:

  • First-person plural – When you wish to make it clear that you’re representing your firm, I typically suggest using “we/our/us.”
  • First-person singular – When you’re communicating a distinctly personal idea, invitation or strongly held opinion, it can be more effective to use I/my/me. (I also favor it when apologizing for a mishap, so you’re conveying personal ownership of the issue. I know when somebody is apologizing to me, I’d much rather hear “I am sorry,” than “We are sorry.”)

Consider this example: “At Awesome Financial, we strive to offer the best possible client care available. If you like what you see on our site, I hope you will give us a call to learn more.”

Pronoun Dissection

Here, I used mostly first-person plural, because you’re largely writing as a representative of Awesome Financial. But I like the idea of personalizing the invitation: “I hope you will give us a call.” By switching to first-person singular, you give the direct invitation a more personalized feel.

Note, though, this only works if it’s followed by your individual sign-off at the end, such as in an e-mail or letter. If this were in a generic company brochure, you’d want to leave it plural throughout. (“We hope … etc.”)

I’m ambivalent about whether it would be better to follow the personal invite with, “give me a call,” or “give us a call.” It depends on the circumstances, such as the nature of your firm and the personality of your reader(s). If you’re a sole proprietor wanting to inject a touch of greater purpose, “us” might remain the better fit. If you’re addressing a large group of readers, you might also want to go with the more formal “us.” If you’re crafting an e-mail to a particular individual as a one-on-one conversation, then lean toward the warmer, “give me a call.”

Consistently Inconsistent

So, to answer my advisor friend’s question, he may already be on the right track with his “sometimes one side and sometimes the other” position. Just be sure to define some guidelines like I have, to enable consistent judgment calls in each instance. Especially if you’re working with a team, write them down, so everyone is following the same overarching guidelines.

I know it would be easier if there were simply an all-or-nothing rule to follow. And you are welcome to define your personal style accordingly if it is a good fit for you and your readers. But by being overly inflexible, there will probably be times that your wording becomes awkward or less effective than it might be.  This can defeat the underlying point of writing consistency: to more clearly communicate your message – no matter who’s on first.