Inclusive 'We' (Grammar)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Martin Luther King, Jr. at the March On Washington waving to the crowd, black and white photograph.
The March On Washington. CNP/Getty Images

In English grammar, inclusive "we" is the use of first-person plural pronouns (we, us, ours, ourselves) to evoke a sense of commonality and rapport between a speaker or writer and his or her audience. Also called the inclusive first-person plural.

This use of we is said to be group cohesive in cases where a speaker (or writer) succeeds in demonstrating solidarity with his or her audience (e.g., "We're all in this together").

In contrast, exclusive we deliberately excludes the person who is being addressed (e.g., "Don't call us; we'll call you").

The term clusivity was recently coined to denote "the phenomenon of inclusive-exclusive distinction" (Elena Filimonova, Clusivity, 2005).

Examples and Observations

  • "Inclusive 'we' for 'I' has rhetorical functions similar to those of inclusive 'we' for 'you': It creates a sense of togetherness and blurs the author-reader divide, and this community promotes agreement. As Mühlhäusler & Harré (1990: 175) point out, the use of 'we' instead of 'I' also diminishes the responsibilities of the speaker, since he or she is portrayed as collaborating with the hearer."
    (Kjersti Fløttum, Trine Dahl, and Torodd Kinn, Academic Voices: Across Languages and Disciplines. John Benjamins, 2006)
  • "With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day."
    (Martin Luther King, Jr., "I Have a Dream," 1963)
  • "A serious house on serious earth it is,
    In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
    Are recognized, and robed as destinies."
    (Philip Larkin, "Church Going," 1954)
  • "Just around the corner
    There's a rainbow in the sky,
    So let's have another cup o' coffee
    And let's have another piece o' pie!"
    (Irving Berlin, "Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee." Face the Music, 1932)
  • "[A] little girl runs out of the shadows of a side-street, runs barefoot through the wind, her black hair leaping.
    "She is grimed from the gutters of the city; her dress is thin and ragged; one shoulder is naked.
    "And she runs at Rock's side, crying out: Give us a penny, mister, give us a penny." (Dylan Thomas, The Doctor and the Devils. Dylan Thomas: The Complete Screenplays, ed. by John Ackerman. Applause, 1995)

Winston Churchill's Use of the Inclusive We

"Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender ..."​ (Prime Minister Winston Churchill, speech to the House of Commons, June 4, 1940)

The Ambivalent Use of We in Political Discourse

"In New Labour discourse, 'we' is used in two main ways: sometimes it is used 'exclusively' to refer to the Government ('we are committed to one-nation politics'), and sometimes it is used 'inclusively' to refer to Britain, or the British people as a whole ('we must be the best'). But things are not so neat. There is a constant ambivalence and slippage between exclusive and inclusive 'we'--the pronoun can be taken as reference to the Government or to Britain (or the British). For instance: 'we intend to make Britain the best educated and skilled nation in the western world. . . . This is an aim we can achieve, if we make it a central national purpose to do it.' The first 'we' is the Government--the reference is to what the Government intends. But the second and third 'we' are ambivalent--they can be taken either exclusively or inclusively. This ambivalence is politically advantageous for a government that wants to represent itself as speaking for the whole nation (though not only for New Labour--playing on the ambivalence of 'we' is commonplace in politics, and is another point of continuity with the discourse of Thatcherism.)"
(Norman Fairclough, New Labour, New Language? Routledge, 2002)

Gender and Inclusive We

"It has been suggested that generally women use inclusive we more than men, reflecting their 'co-operative' rather than 'competitive' ethos (see Bailey 1992: 226), but this needs to be empirically tested, and the different variants of we distinguished. Let's (with speaker--as well as addressee--orientation) and [+voc] we are both recognised features of baby-talk or 'caretakerese' (see Wills 1977), but I have read nothing which distinguishes between the sexes in this respect. Doctors as well as nurses use 'medical [+voc] we' (below); but some research does suggest that female physicians use inclusive we and let's more frequently than male physicians (see West 1990)."​ (Katie Wales, Personal Pronouns in Present-Day English. Cambridge University Press, 1996)

Medical/Institutional We

"Very old people are unlikely to appreciate such imposed familiarity, or jolly fatuities such as 'Have we been a good boy today?' or 'Have we opened our bowels?' which are not confined to the experience of old people." (Tom Arie, "Abuse of Old People." The Oxford Illustrated Companion to Medicine, ed. by Stephen Lock et al. Oxford University Press, 2001)

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Inclusive 'We' (Grammar)." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). Inclusive 'We' (Grammar). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Inclusive 'We' (Grammar)." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).