We, The People
by Cherie Tucker
We just reviewed pronoun usage, so I thought any confusion was all cleared up. But, alas, it seems we have a bit more work to do. What with all the recent elections, people appear to be quoting the Constitution a great deal more than usual—that is, misquoting. When Jefferson wrote “We, the people . . .,” the use of the pronoun “we” was entirely correct, because the sentence goes on to show that “We” actually “do” something:
“We . . . do ordain and establish.”
Even though it takes a while to get to those verbs, “We” is their subject. I realize that when people say “for we, the people,” they think that they are quoting the Constitution, but that is not how those words were used in that document. Pronouns have specific functions, so if you change the sentence structure, you must be sure the pronouns you are using still work.
If you say (or write) that something is for those people, you have to say that it is for “us, the people.” The word “for” makes the change necessary. Think about it. Would you walk into a room with your friend, discover a plate of freshly baked cookies, and say, “Are these for we?”
As writers, you know that quoted material is sacred. You can’t mess with a quotation to suit your own writing. You must use brackets ( [ ] ) to show you altered the text or ellipsis marks ( . . . ) to show you left things out. In this case, you are misquoting the Constitution, and we all know the problems that kind of thing can lead to. So don’t. These grammar rules are for us, all of us, the people. They are especially for us, the writers.
Cherie Tucker, owner of GrammarWorks, has taught writing basics to professionals since 1987, presenting at the PNWA conference. She currently teaches Practical Grammar for Editors at the University of Washington’s Editing Certification program and edits as well. GrammarWorks@msn.com