Addressing the Assemblée nationale on December 28, 1792, Robespierre claimed that, in attesting to the truth, any invocation of a majority or minority is nothing but a means of reducing “to silence those whom one designated by this term [minority]”; “[The] minority has everywhere an eternal right: to render audible the voice of truth.”

(Source: Jacobin)

Do you find the passage in bold grammatically OK? If the part was "who were designated by this term" I would understand it, but as it stands I am a little bit confused. Or is my interpretation of the meaning wrong?

  • 3
    It's perfectly grammatical. One here is an indefinite pronoun signifying any speaker who uses the term; using an active construction with one as its subject Agent thus has virtually the same informational content as using a passive construction with no Agent expressed. May 14, 2016 at 15:35
  • 3
    StoneyB is right; however, your rewriting, "to silence those who were designated by this term," is more elegant and understandable than the original, regardless of grammaticality. "To silence those whom one designated" sounds awkward and clunky, at least to my ear. May 14, 2016 at 15:39
  • The version with "whom one" seems to emphasize the fact that some person is responsible for the designation. However, this is a translation from French (which I don't speak) so this phrasing might have other reasons. May 17, 2016 at 19:56
  • @MarkHubbard, Laugh is absolutely right. The correct translation should be "some person..."
    – JavaLatte
    May 17, 2016 at 21:30
  • The tense is wrong. It should be "to silence those whom one has designated by this term" because while the designation happened in the past, it still has an impact on the present. May 17, 2016 at 22:04

1 Answer 1


The usage of one is grammatically correct in this context, but it is a mistranslation of Robespierre's speech. Here is the original text:

Déjà, pour éterniser la discorde et pour se rendre maîtres des délibérations, on a imaginé de distinguer l’Assemblée en majorité et en minorité, nouveau moyen d’outrager et de réduire au silence ceux qu’on désigne sous cette dernière dénomination.

The word on can be translated in English as one (any person) or as somebody (a specific but unidentified person). One is used to describe the normal behaviour of any typical person: it simply doesn't work for the first usage of on

a typical person formulated an evil plan

it has to be

a specific but unidentified person formulated an evil plan

Robespierre is therefore suggesting in the second clause that somebody formulated an evil plan, and in the final clause that the same particular person would decide who was in the minority: an appropriate pronoun to use for the second clause would therefore be they. The evil plan only works if they get to decide who is in the minority. Here is my (literal) translation:

Already, to perpetuate discord and to render themselves masters of the deliberations, somebody conceived a plan to divide the Assembly into majority and minority, a new way to insult and reduce to silence those that they designate by the latter term.

Note also that designate is in the present tense, meaning that the designation is not already decided: they can decide now or in the future who is in the minority. This article states that Robespierre was himself "put into the minority" on the 27th July 1794 and was reduced to silence by guillotine the next day.

As you can see, the Jacobin article paraphrases (badly) the first part of the sentence. For the part that is the subject of the question- those whom one designated by this term - the structure of the translation is accurate, but the translation of the word on to one is not correct: the first usage of on makes it clear that the translation should have been somebody, or better they.

who were designated by this term might seem clearer, but it moves even further from the original text.

  • I'm not at all sure that Robespierre intended to suggest a somebody: in French "on" is often used to avoid a passive, but with no suggestions of agency. But this is off topic for this forum.
    – Colin Fine
    May 17, 2016 at 22:58
  • But @ColinFine, one meaning "any person, like you or me" simply doesn't work for the first clause.
    – JavaLatte
    May 18, 2016 at 4:59
  • I don't understand your comment, @JavaLatte. What I'm saying, more clearly, is that "on a imaginé" means "it is imagined", and "ceux qu’on désigne" means "those [who are] designated" . The "one designated" in the English is a mistranslation, as you said, but I believe that your translation is also unfaithful. The usual translation of "on" is not "one" or "somebody", but a passive without agent.
    – Colin Fine
    May 18, 2016 at 15:10
  • @ColinFine, the usual translation is not always the best one. Here is a reference showing the translation that I have used. collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/french-english/on. "Somebody stole my wallet" is much more personal than "my wallet was stolen". Robespierre wants to make this personal: he is suggesting that somebody is trying to manipulate the assembly.
    – JavaLatte
    May 18, 2016 at 15:28
  • Yes, "Somebody stole my wallet" is much more personal than "my wallet was stolen", but my suggestion is that " On m'a volé mon porte-monnaie" is not particularly personal. (Note that your source gives both translations). Therefore I dispute that Robespierre is choosing to make this personal.
    – Colin Fine
    May 18, 2016 at 15:53

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