Contemporary Language Debate: You

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Links in this essay will take you to information about the usage experts and their work. Numbers in parentheses are page references in the sources.

 

you

 

      Many students are so spooked by the word you that they avoid it at all costs. Some of these students may have had a teacher who preached that you is never acceptable in writing. Others may simply be confused about when the second-person (you) point of view is appropriate. Such confusion is not surprising. English teachers hold varying opinions, and usage experts who choose to address the matter offer conflicting advice.


       Certainly no expert argues that it is wrong to use you when the writer has reason to speak directly to readers, as when offering advice or giving instructions. In such contexts, you is the reader-friendly approach. As William Zinsser puts it, "The voice of a Dr. Spock talking to the mother of a child with a fever, or the voice of a Julia Child talking to the cook stalled in mid-recipe, is one of the most reassuring sounds a reader can hear" (124).


       In business writing, the you point of view is often appropriate. In many contexts, you is friendlier than the third person and more straightforward as well.

 

YOU VERSUS THE THIRD PERSON
You [not Our clients] may call our consumer hotline twenty-four hours a day.

 

       Opinions are more divided on using you indefinitely to mean "one" or "anyone in general." Surprisingly, some experts see nothing wrong with such uses. As a matter of fact, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language lists youmeaning "an indefinitely specified person; one" as appropriate and gives an informal sentence as its sole example: You can't win them all. (Oddly, this dictionary—famous for its usage panel—provides no usage note.)


       Some who approve of the indefinite you seem to do so out of dislike for the indefinite pronoun one. For example, Roy Copperud writes, "You for one is acceptable, and indeed preferable if the writer wants to strike an informal conversational tone: 'You can see the ocean from here on a clear day' " (447).Kenneth Wilson shows why one is problematic:

 

Should one begin an impersonal statement with one, or should you start off with you? Style is the problem: one can sound very formal and self-consciously elevated, especially to Americans (the British use one much more frequently). (308)

 

       The issue, it seems, is level of formality. In informal, conversational speech and writing, we can often get away with using the indefinite you, and you may in fact be preferable to one—at least in American English.


       Not all writing is informal, however, and one is rarely the only alternative toyou. In formal academic writing, most professors would object to a sentence like this one:

 

By the 1870s, you could no longer find good land for homesteading in the prairies of the Midwest.

 

This use of you is too informal, and we can easily fix the sentence without resorting to one. Here are two possibilities:

 

By the 1870s, pioneers could no longer find good land for homesteading in the prairies of the Midwest.

By the 1870s, few good tracts of land were available for homesteaders in the prairies of the Midwest.

 

       Conclusion: Feel free to use you when addressing readers directly. When you want to refer to anyone in general, avoid you in formal writing, and do your best to avoid one as well.

 

 

 

Source: Hacker Handbooks (Boston: Bedford, 2013).

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