“We all of us”

A while back, an (American) Facebook friend posted something to the effect of, “We all of us have to be compassionate.” I was struck by the “we all of us” phrase; the typical American way of saying it would be either “we all have to be …” or “all of us have to be…” Turns out, no surprise, that the effectively redundant “we all of us” is traditionally more British than American.

Google Ngram Viewer shows an interesting pattern.

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My sense is this kind of shape has shown up for other words and phrases covered here. That is, similar trends in Britain and the U.S. in the nineteenth century, leading up to roughly equal use at the turn of the century, a Henry James/William Howells era when literary style in the two countries was similar. (Remember, Ngram Viewer uses the Gooogle Books database, which only includes published sources, mainly books.) Then a divergent American trend over the course of the Hemingway-influenced twentieth century, in which the term in question would sound fussy or stiff, followed by a closing of the gaps in recent decades, that due both to a reduced popularity of the phrase in Britain (where it has started to sound old-fashioned) and an increased use in the U.S., because NOOBs.

The phrase shows up twelve times in OED citations, ten of them by British writers, including Joseph Addison (“We all of us complain of the Shortness of Time,” 1711) and George Eliot (“We all of us carry on our thinking in some habitual locus where there is a presence of other souls,” 1876). The two U.S. examples are from novelists Nathaniel Hawthorne and Clarence Edward Mulford, in 1860 and 1908, respectively — both before the American divergence.

Other databases tell complementary stories. The Corpus of Historical American English shows use of the phrase peaking in the U.S. in the 1920s, disappearing in the 1980s, and popping up again just a little bit in recent decades:

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The News on the Web corpus, charting the years 2010-2020, shows only moderately more uses of the phrase in Britain than America.

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Those numbers are a little misleading. Of the 20 hits ascribed to the U.S., the nationality of the speaker or writer can be discerned in 12, and of those only six are American, including the actor Richard Dreyfuss, who said in 2017 after being accused of sexual harassment, “We all of us are awakening to the reality that how men have behaved toward women for eons is not OK.” There’s also an odd quote from novelist Rick Moody: “Ernest Hemingway famously said of Mark Twain’s legacy that ‘we all of us came out from under Huck Finn’s skirts.'” (It’s odd because Moody mangles the actual Hemingway quotes, which is: “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. […] it’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” The skirt reference is presumable to a scene in Twain’s book where Huck disguises himself as a girl.)

My investigation of “we all of us” turned up one heavy American user of the phrase. That would be our former president, Barack Obama, who has employed in oratory at least three times: a 2009 speech to the NAACP (“And we, all of us in government, are working to do our part…”), a 2011 Iowa town hall meeting (“As tough as things are, we, all of us, are incredibly blessed to have been born in the United States”), and his 2015 State of the Union address (“So the question for those of us here tonight is how we, all of us, can better reflect America’s hopes”).

Now, you may have noticed that in all three of the quotes, there are commas in the phrase. That is, the transcriptions show him saying “we,” then pausing and emphasizing the word with “all of us” (or “all of us in government”). That’s a bit different from the phrase as used in all the written examples above. I submit that in fact, Obama used it without a pause, and the commas were inserted by transcribers, perhaps because they were Americans and unfamiliar with the straight-through “we all of us.”

However, I am too lazy to check out my contention. If anybody else wants to, here’s video of the SOTU address. I almost hate to put it out, because the gap between Obama and the current occupant of the White House is so painfully chasmatic. But anything in the interest of science. According to this transcript, the phrase comes about three quarters of the way through.





12 thoughts on ““We all of us”

  1. Living in the UK I must say I’ve never seen it but with Obama adding a comma after …we,…makes more sense than leaving it out.

  2. Writing as a Brit, I’d say that “We all of us” has a slightly formal public address ring to it … something you’d hear more from a podium than down the pub.

  3. I found it just before 52 minutes, and it sounds to my untrained as if he does pause after “we.” (I didn’t listen to the whole thing b/c it reminds me of how far American has fallen since he left office.)

  4. “We, all of us,….” as an oratorical construct to emphasise the inclusiveness of “we”, as used by Obama, sounds reasonable. However, “we all of us” seems very clumsy even when used colloquially. It is certainly not common or acceptable in British English.

  5. I wish there were more labels on the charts and tables. I suspect this usage is very uncommon both in British English and American English. Uncommon enough that the apparent greater prevalence in British English might not be statistically significant – small sample size.

    1. “We’re none of us perfect” is used as a phrase but it sounds like a quotation or catchphrase, probably used ironically. I am sixty one years old and English: I don’t recall ever having heard “we all of us”. I can imagine a pompous local official deploying it in a speech or meeting but that’s about all. For the avoidance of doubt, I am not equating the former President with a pompous local official!

  6. I (70something and Londoner by upbringing) have a range of these. We all of us, and examples such as

    We’ve all of us had breakfast

    Let’s all of us go together

    They’ve all of them had their measles jab

    They’ll all of them go bankrupt

  7. I use “we all of us” not in public speech to large numbers of people but when I am in discussions with medium size groups, say eight to ten people. I use it to say something like, “We all of us know what it’s like to be in a situation when we feel as if our value and worth is being dismissed so we shouldn’t be surprised that XXXX responds in this way when we don’t show them that we are taking them into consideration. When I first read this post I thought, “I know the phrase but I don’t use it” but as I reflected, I use it quite frequently. t

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