Q: This sentence is on a literary agency website: “We offer our clients unusually meaningful editorial guidance and inspiration, and serve as their advocate throughout the publishing process.” Shouldn’t “we” take the plural “advocates”?
A: The literary agency is using what’s often called “the corporate we.” The firm itself is the “advocate” (singular), but refers to itself in the plural (“we”).
This is a very common practice in business language; in fact, it’s the rule rather than the exception in corporate discourse.
A company, an organization, or an institution will commonly refer to itself with the first-person plural “we” (along with “us,” “our,” and “ourselves” where appropriate), rather than with the impersonal pronoun “it.”
Here are some examples plucked randomly from the Internet. Note that in each case a singular entity (“company,” “university,” “medical center,” “firm”) refers to itself in the plural:
“We want to be your car company” … “We’re America’s first research university” … “We are a not-for-profit, 912-bed academic medical center” … “We are a major employer in the area” … “As a ‘main street’ accounting firm, we set ourselves apart” … “As a company we pride ourselves on our customer service and satisfaction” … “But we’re not just bigger—we’re one of the best colleges” … “It’s what makes us the business we are today.”
And commercial and institutional websites invariably use language like “who we are” and “what we do,” never “what it is” and “what it does.”
The corporate “we” isn’t a recent invention. You can find commercial examples from the early 20th century. But the usage began to surge in the 1980s, Lester Faigley writes in Fragments of Rationality: Postmodernity and the Subject of Composition (1992).
“Use of the corporate we is one of the tactics stressed in popular books on corporate management during the 1980s,” Faigley writes, mentioning specifically the influential book Corporate Cultures (1982), by Terrence E. Deal and Allan A. Kennedy. That book refers to the use of “we” as “a clever ploy for communicating corporate principles.”
Another book, Ruth Breze’s Corporate Discourse (2013), has this to say:
“There is an almost overwhelming insistence on collective identity: the corporate ‘we,’ which reports achievements in positive terms, and is used variously to include ‘we the employees,’ ‘we the management,’ ‘we the company and its investors’ and ‘we the general public.’ Self-praise is risky when one individual indulges it in front of others. … However, self-praise is socially admissible if the entity being praised is a collective ‘us’ that potentially involves the reader/listener.”
The corporate usage isn’t the only notable “we” on the landscape. Two others have been around for much longer—the “editorial we” and the “royal we.”
The “editorial we” is sometimes adopted by the author of a book or article, particularly an opinion column. It’s defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “the pronoun we used by a single person to denote himself, as in an editorial.”
The dictionary’s earliest example is from a letter written by Charles Dickens in 1841: “Every rotten-hearted pander who … struts it in the Editorial We once a week.”
The “royal we,” the oldest of the three, is the one used by English kings and queens. The OED defines the “royal we” as “the pronoun ‘we’ used in place of ‘I’ by a monarch or other person in power, esp. in formal declarations, or (frequently humorously) by any individual.”
The earliest definite known use in English is from a proclamation of Henry III in 1298, the dictionary says. But perhaps the most famous example is Queen Victoria’s reported response to a joke told at dinner: “We are not amused.”
(The remark was passed on by Her Majesty’s secretary, and reported in the press during her lifetime, but it has never been definitively confirmed.)
The practice of referring to oneself in the plural actually has a name, “nosism,” as the two of us wrote on our blog in 2011. The word comes from the Latin nos (“we”), so it literally means we-ism.