Lesson #151: ‘To Put One’s Finger On The Passage’: How The Indefinite Pronoun ‘One’ Is Used In English

📜 Miss Tita confided to me that at present her aunt was so motionless that she sometimes feared she was dead; moreover she took hardly any food—one couldn’t see what she lived on.

– Henry James, The Aspern Papers (1888)

If you have been studying or reading in English for a while, chances are that you have come across the use of ‘one’ to describe an unidentified person. Who is ‘one’? I have found some resources online that wrongly state that ‘one’ simply means ‘you’ – this is sometimes the case, but not always.

This small pronoun therefore requires a lesson all to itself. It is widely used in English, especially in formal and professional communication, so it is worth understanding well.


‘One’ is an indefinite or impersonal pronoun that simply means ‘a person’. As such, it doesn’t have a specific gender. It is believed to originate in the French pronoun ‘on’, which itself is derived from the Latin word for ‘human’: ‘homo’. 


In keeping with this meaning, any verb form that uses the English indefinite pronoun ‘one’ is conjugated as if it were a third person (‘she’/’he’/’it’). Observe this in the following quotations from a book that has many characteristic instances of the impersonal ‘one’ (I will be sharing more on this classic by Henry James):

📜 ‘It costs too much to cultivate them; one has to have a man.’

📜 I felt almost as one who corrupts the innocence of youth.

📜 ‘Oh, when one wants and when one has so much will!’ said Miss Tita …

– Henry James, The Aspern Letters


‘One’ can function as a grammatical subject, a verb’s direct or indirect object, or even the complement of a preposition. Its form never changes, whether or not it is a subject or an object; contrast this with personal pronouns she/her, he/him, I/me, etc

Its reflexive form is oneself, and its possessive form is one’s

📜 Besides, though Miss Bordereau could not today be called personally attractive and there was something even in her wasted antiquity that bade one stand at one’s distance, I felt an irresistible desire to hold in my own for a moment the hand that Jeffrey Aspern had pressed.

📜 Certain it is that it would have been difficult to put one’s finger on the passage in which her fair fame suffered an imputation.

✏️ Note: ‘to put one’s finger on [something]’ is a common fixed phrase in English that means ‘to identify, detect, or specify something, usually an issue or problem’.

Whenever you use ‘one’ as a pronoun, make sure that you are consistent in how you refer to it afterwards. Take this line as an example, where all references to the same person use the same indefinite pronoun and avoid switching to using a personal pronoun:  

📜 One doesn’t defend one’s god: one’s god is in himself a defense.

– Henry James, The Aspern Papers


This is where I finally can explain why I was drawn to Henry James’ The Aspern Papers to explain this particular lesson. 

‘One’ is usually used to refer politely either to the speaker, to the listener, or to people in general. In James’ 1888 classic, the main character (or protagonist) is an enthusiastic researcher who wants to write the biography of a poet whom he admires. The poet is long dead, but his former mistress is still alive and living in Venice, where the researcher goes. He hopes that he will be able to access some of the poet’s original manuscripts from this elderly lady, but to do so he must be exceedingly polite and win her confidence. For this reason, his conversation is peppered (full of) the impersonal pronoun ‘one’ as he makes polite suggestions, speaks lowly of himself, or makes general remarks on other people. In other words, he is on his best behaviour whenever he speaks to this lady and her helpful niece.

I will say no more, because it is a short story worth your reading and I wouldn’t like to spoil the plot for you.

Consider these different instances of the pronoun ‘one’. Can you tell who is the person (or generic persons) they are referring to? You can compare your answers with mine below.

📜 (a) It was a much more important fact, if one were looking at his genius critically, that he had lived in the days before the general transfusion.

📜 (b) ‘But where is it that one could take an advantage of her?’

📜 (c) On that hypothesis it was well to let her see that one did not notice her little tricks.  

📜 (d) She was such a subtle old witch that one could never tell where one stood with her.

📜 (e) ‘… Writing books, unless one be a great genius—and even then!—is the last road to fortune. I think there is no more money to be made by literature.’

– Henry James, The Aspern Papers


‘One’ as an indefinite pronoun is not used very often in American English, and when it is used by these speakers, it tends to sound very formal. Common substitutes for the indefinite pronoun ‘one’ might be the generic ‘they’ or generic ‘you’: however it is worth noting that in many contexts these forms will sound too informal and direct. 

Sometimes it is also possible to use the passive voice instead of the impersonal pronoun ‘one’: e.g. ‘It is important to study diligently for the examination’, rather than, ‘One must / ought to / should study diligently for the examination’. That said however, there are many occasions where ‘one’ cannot be changed into the passive voice without losing its valuable sense of human agency or action: for example, the speaker might want to address students (‘One must study’) and not just offer generic advice (‘it is important to …’)

For this reason, I recommend that English learners become comfortable using ‘one’ as a pronoun whenever possible (especially in written English). Remember: the more comfortable you feel, the more natural you will sound as you use it. In my experience, sounding respectful yet natural is the best balance between sounding either too formal or informal. The versatile pronoun ‘one’ provides you with many opportunities to achieve that balance.


(a) ‘one’ refers to ‘you’

(b) ‘one’ here could refer to ‘a person’ or ‘you’ 

(c) ‘one’ refers to the speaker: ‘… that I did not notice her little tricks’

(d) ‘one’ refers to the speaker

(e) ‘one’ refers to ‘you’

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2023)