Singular accusatory tense is no fit for me, but for we

My wife reached for the Kleenex box and came up empty. She locked eyes with me. “We sure go through a lot of tissues, don’t we?”

Every married guy knows what she meant. She didn’t mean WE. She meant ME.

The implication was that I, personally, must be grabbing tissues by the fistful to bury in the backyard, feed to the dog or rocket to the moon. “We” most certainly could not be her.

Her use of “we” in the singular accusatory tense, grammatically speaking.

In plain English, the words translated to, “Look, Bub, stop blowing the honker so much.”

But use of “we” in the singular accusatory tense restated in a way she hoped was polite enough to keep me from using my shirt sleeves instead.

That word “we” often means trouble — especially when “we” doesn’t really mean you and me, but only me. It leaves me promising to reform from deeds I’m not positive I’ve actually committed.

It begins in early childhood with crazy Aunt Martha attempting to inflict table manners on a kid still in a high chair: “Now WE don’t want to make a mess, do WE? So, WE’LL just hold our fork this way so OUR shirt stays all clean.”

“Look, lady,” I wanted to say, had I been able to talk in full sentences, “YOU can keep the sketti sauce off of YOUR shirt if YOU want. If so, you better back out of the splash zone. But I haven’t learned to write yet. MY shirt is my diary.

“Things will be more fun if WE — you’n me both — splattered sketti in OUR hair. Hold still, here it comes! Now why’d she run off screeching like that?”

By the time we reach adulthood (and can pronounce spaghetti without splattering it), we’ve figured out that “we” is polite code for what we really want to blurt out.

At a party, for example, when he says to her, “Well, we really should be going. We don’t want to be out too late,” what he means is, “Stop yammering. I wanna go home. Your friends are boring, and there’s a very important baseball game on TV.”

She, of course, knows this. And so do her friends.

“Fred’s having a meltdown,” she says. “I better leave or WE will be hearing about this all night.”

Then there’s the “royal we.” In grammar books, it’s known as the stuffy unpretentious pretentious tense.

People of high office — kings or bishops or university presidents and such — like to say “we” when the word “me” would be accurate: “We, by the power granted to us, believe it in our best interest for you to pay more taxes.”

Loosely translated, “we” means “Gimme, gimme, gimme.”

These people believe it shows great humility that they NEVER say “I.” They practically burst with pride over their lack of ego. And you had better notice their lack of self-centeredness or they’ll be miffed.

The royal we can be all kinds of awkward. I sat in the congregation one day as the speaker said, “As we were saying to our wife the other day…”

Excuse me? How many of you are there married to that poor woman?

“Our wife brings us our slippers when we come home from work.”

How big of an armload is that?

Meanwhile, sitting somewhere in the second row, a woman rolled her eyes and muttered, “I’m going to hurt that man. All of them.”

I suspect the guy became like This Little Piggy who went “wee, wee, wee” all the way home while she huffed, and puffed, and blew his ever-lovin’ ego down.

Yes, WE know that we just scrambled a nursery rhyme with a fable, but this is OUR column and WE get to pretend that it all makes sense. I mean, I. Yeah, we meant I. We agree.

We can write to Cole at burton.w.cole@gmail.com or on the Burton W. Cole page on Facebook, where we sometimes hang out.


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