We the nerds

“are you referring to yourself in the plural now? It’s getting a little spooky…”
(from a comment on a previous post)

Mark Twain wrote that “only presidents, editors and people with tapeworms have the right to use the editorial ‘we’.” Here at Shtetl-Optimized, we couldn’t agree more. The trouble is that we — sorry, I — have spent too much time in the grammatical dungeon of academic science, where the first-person singular is vaguely taboo.

“But why is it taboo?” you ask. Simple: because if people referred to themselves as “I” in single-author scientific papers, then they’d deprive readers of the fun of reading a sentence like

Hence we see that H is Hermitian

and wondering exactly how to parse it. Personally, I can think of at least seven possibilities:

  • Hence I see that H is Hermitian, and so do you, dear reader, unless you have the IQ of a trout.
  • Hence Reason, Truth, and Reality themselves, with me as humble scribe, have all testified to the Hermitianness of H since the beginning of time, and will continue to do so after all is naught.
  • Hence, though modesty forbids me from saying so, I have shown that H is Hermitian. But one shouldn’t forget all the little people who helped make it possible.
  • Hence, after meeting over wine and cheese in our ivory tower, we, the High Priests of the Scientific Orthodoxy, have arrogantly decided that H shall henceforth be Hermitian.
  • Hence I — a sniveling wuss who can’t even directly acknowledge his own existence, and probably got beat up a lot in junior high school — have shown that H is Hermitian.
  • Hence I — a resident of the collectivist dystopia of Ayn Rand’s novel Anthem, in which the word “I” has been abolished — have shown that H is Hermitian.

And finally:

  • Hence H is Hermitian.

14 Responses to “We the nerds”

  1. Leucipo Says:

    I like to use the first interpretation, but then we should to choose plural or singulr case-by-case, specially when making non-mathematical appreciations.

  2. Leucipo Says:

    Ah, instead of Anthem, I would quote K LeGuin’s Anarres from “The Disposessed”, where the argument is about publishing a quantum gravity theory.

  3. Cheshire Cat Says:

    The way is eightfold, though, isn’t it? So here’s an eighth: being a subscriber to the many worlds hypothesis, “we”, namely the constellation of my selves in all possible worlds, see that H is Hermitian…

    (since mathematics is platonic)

  4. Anonymous Says:

    Unfortunately, in the vast majority of worlds, you don’t exist. And sometimes when you do, Hermite went into politics.

  5. Cheshire Cat Says:

    And what about the worlds in which the many-worlds hypothesis is false?

  6. chris Says:

    I like the use of the third person in mathematics. During many a lonely wee hour studying, it’s nice to think Herr Gauss et al. decided to accompany their readers rather than just toss them a book. Whenever I read a “first person” paper, I think the author’s a selfish bastard :)

  7. Matt Says:

    OK, I’m going to put on my Lynne Truss hat now. I EMPLORE THE WORLD TO DE-WE THEIR PAPERS!

    When “we” is used in a single authour paper it should mean “myself and the reader”. Such is the correct interpretation of “We see that H is Hermitian”. However, this use of “we” is usually just the result of lazy writing, which is endemic in scientific publications. In this case, “Hence, H is Herimitan” is simpler, clearer and more concise and hence it is to be preferred.

    In a single author paper, people should not be afraid to use the single-person where appropriate. For exmple, in the abstract, introduction and conclusion it would be appropriate (gramatically at least) to say “I have shown that P=NP” or “I show that P=NP”. To say “We have shown …” suggests uncredited coauthours and is simply inaccurate and wrong.

    Since we are on the subject, here are some other pet peeves:

    - “the so-called …”: I think that some non native English speakers are not aware that this subtly implies the suggestion that although the name used is generally used, it ought not to be. It would be appropriate to say something like “the so-called Smith equation, which was actually discovered in 1781 by Jones”, but I have seen this form used in some quite ridiculous situations, e.g. “the so-called Newton’s laws of motion”. That’s a made-up example of course, but is not far from what I have seen some people actually write.

    - “clearly, …”: This is usually used to mean “as the result of many years of subtle conceptual thinking, (the community of scientists/this particular authour) is of the opinion that …”. I am actually guilty of this infraction myself. I guess people like it because it gives an extra little stamp of authority to the argument. However, if the argument is a good one, then the extra push should not really be needed. If used at all it should at least be explained from whence the clarity arises, e.g. “Clearly, the fact that the sky is blue is a consequence of Maxwell’s equations, since Rayleigh’s law can be derived from them.”

    - “… is trivial”: This usually means “is quite complicated, but the authors cannot be bothered to include it because it would cause the paper to violate the 4 page limit of Phys. Rev. Lett.”. My main objection is the use of this expression on its own, without any indication of why the result is trivial. It just makes the reader feel like a dummy if they can’t see why the result is true, and a good author should never make their readers feel stupid. Something like “.. is trivially proved by applying the Wigner-Eckart theorem.” would be more appropriate because it at least gives the reader a clue about where to look if they don’t get it.

    OK, rant over.

  8. Abie Says:

    I think it’s nice to use “we” in math papers. It’s like the author and the reader are working through the mathematics together. I guess it is a little bit of a one-sided collaboration, though.

  9. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    The first and last interpretations are the closest to the truth. Your example may not be quite fair, since the verb (“see”) isn’t important to the matheamtics.

    So suppose that you have the phrase, “If we integrate by parts, then…” What could the “we” mean here, or what might have you instead. If you say, “If I integrate by parts,” it sort-of reads, “I alone will integrate by parts, since this whole paper is my idea and not yours, nyah, nyah.” But if you say, “If you integrate by parts,” it could be taken as, “I ask you to integrate by parts; I can’t be bothered.” The “we” can be taken as the more friendly, if perhaps cloying, “you and I will both integrate by parts, because we’re in this as a team.”

  10. Anonymous Says:

    The propensity of non-native speakers to use “so-called” incorrectly is indeed quite bizarre. I am always left thinking that these occurences must hint at some underlying tension between competing groups.

    The correct usage: “If one integrates by parts…”

    Here’s why it’s easier to use “we” even when the paper has a single author: When you want to cut-and-paste a section of your single-authored paper into a co-authored work, you don’t have to change the wording of the proof.

  11. Wolfgang Says:

    > If you say, “If I integrate by parts,” it sort-of reads

    it sort-of reads “if I integrate the
    result is X, but if YOU integrate the
    results may be something else”.

    Therefore we should use “if WE integrate ..” since it indicates that the result is always the same.

  12. Matt Says:

    Again, I can only urge people to de-”we” as far as is possible. It only becomes apparent just how much this improves the readability of the paper once you have tried it. Go ahead and experiment with de-”we”ing and see if you agree with me.

    “If one integates by parts, then …” is slightly better, but if you don’t want to come off sounding like Prince Charles then “Integrating by parts gives …” might be even better.

  13. Matt Says:

    “The propensity of non-native speakers to use “so-called” incorrectly is indeed quite bizarre.”

    I think there must be a phrase in some European language (I would guess German) that translates literally as “so-called”, but really has a meaning more like “is called”. Perhaps there is a linguist reading this who can enlighten us.

    In any case, all these problems will eventually disappear because I predict that all native versions of English will eventually be replaced by a sort of pidgin language, which I call “Conference English”, as the international language of science. The majority of conference participants already speak it and often complain of not being able to understand the talks of native speakers. Some journals are already accepting papers written in this language without editing for grammar. It actually makes me wonder what the editors of journals actually do if they are not willing to correct grammar, since they clearly aren’t correcting the sicence either.

  14. secret milkshake Says:

    Conference English: when a codex of this new language is written and agreed upon (probably on a UN conference in Geneva), police bariers should be erected to keep the French delegates at the oposite side of the lake. Only drastic measures can save the Conference English for the rest of us.