Who is Meant by “You”?

By Guest Author

This is a guest post by David Bowman. If you want to write for Daily Writing Tips check the guidelines here.

One of the expressions that grates on my nerves is “My sister is always there for you.” Another is “They are so nice to you.” And a third is “Chocolate makes you feel happy.” Do you see what these have in common? The writer is trying to make a general statement or description by using “you.”

If I read these statements, I might respond with “I have never met your sister,” “I don’t know them,” and “I don’t like chocolate.” (Ok, the last response is untrue, but how does the writer know what makes me happy?) Although I generally encourage writers to write about their readers, expressions like these are problematic. Here’s why.

These statements describe a false reality and presume that what is true for the writer is also true for the reader. For example, by writing “My sister is always there for you,” the writer is incorrectly claiming that the writer’s sister has helped and supported me, the reader. But what if the sister and I don’t know each other? She has never “been there” for me. This statement is not generally true and doesn’t describe the sister.

These statements are simple to correct in most cases. If the writer is describing his or her own experiences, we simply swap “I” or “me” for “you.” Using the previous example, the writer can write, “My sister is always there for me.” Now the statement is accurate.

The second example is not as easy. How can we fix “They are so nice to you”? The assumption here is that “they” are nice to everyone they meet or know, not just the writer. We use that assumption to revise the sentence as follows: “They are so nice to everyone.” An even better revision might be “They are so nice.” Now this sentence is also accurate.

The third example is even more difficult because it might be true for some readers but not all of them. Chocolate does, in fact, make some people happy. If the writer wants to make a general description of chocolate, but also wants to write accurately, he or she may write, “Chocolate makes people happy.” We might even revise this as “Chocolate makes most people happy” if we know that this is true for the majority of people.

Now that we have fixed incorrect uses of “you,” let’s look at a correct use. Let’s say I read the sentence “You can catch a cold while flying on an airplane.” Maybe I will catch a cold, and maybe I won’t, but it is possible. If I, the reader, fly on an airplane, I can catch a cold. This statement is accurate.

In a nutshell, here’s the point: We prefer accurate writing. Avoid “you” unless you are writing about the reader.

About the Author: David Bowman is the owner and chief editor of Precise Edit. As a specialist in written communications with nearly 20 years of experience, he helps clients achieve their writing goals. He is a favored writing instructor at the University of New Mexico, as well as the author of the Precise Edit blog and several books on writing.

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13 Responses to “Who is Meant by “You”?”

  • Michael Batey

    This is a load of tripe!

    The use of ‘you’ to mean ‘one’, anyone, or people in general is widespread and well-established.

    The writer of the post objecting to it doesn’t make it wrong. Established usage wins every time.

    Michael

  • NEB

    I agree with Michael, and so does my dictionary. The second entry for ‘you’ is ‘one; anyone; people in general’.

    NEB

  • Carol

    Garbled speech and writing requires interpretation, limits precise communication, results in misunderstanding, clouds the original concept. Sloppiness in public usage should not encourage sloppiness in oneself (or in the case of Michael, you.)

  • Carol

    I see the typo ‘requires’ where ‘require’ is intended. Oops.

  • Prashant Badiger

    Hi, David Bowman! Your article on who is meant by “You” is very convincing. In many articles, blog posts, books I have seen author referring to reader as “you”. As a author, if am giving some ideas on motivation it is very important for me to explain from universal point of view. e.g If a person desires to succeed, he has to put efforts. In other way , if I write “if you have a desire to succeed, you have to put efforts”, this statement is directly addressing the person to put efforts.
    What if the reader is a hard working person? It doesn’t apply to him. He knows that there is no short cut to success. Even I was using the word “you” to the audiences while elaborating on the point in my blog. Thanks for your valuable suggestions.

  • Hal

    I know this is correct. However, I sometimes tire of nitpicking the spoken phrase, meant as a simple gesture of good will. This is one of those times. I think.

    I know a guy who called me out on nearly every cliché I used. “To be honest with you…” meant to him that sometimes I wasn’t honest.

    Jeeze. Is this some sort of diversion to avoid thinking about important things in life?

  • Sylvia

    What about the relatively recent: “Your weather for today is…”? It’s not “my” weather, it’s “the” weather! Are weather forecasters everywhere now using “your”?

  • shirleyinberkeley

    “You” is now, and always has been, a plural pronoun. If your listener is so clueless as to fail to understand that you don’t mean “thee” or “thou,” you may need to clear it up, but most of the time everyone gets it.

  • NEB

    The comment I sent yesterday seems to have slipped through the net, so here it is again:

    I agree with Michael, and so does my dictionary. The second entry for ‘you’ is ‘one; anyone; people in general’.

  • Cine Cynic

    A big sign of the decline of second person usage in literature, both fiction and non-fiction. How I miss you!

  • Carol

    Commonly used poor grammar differs from commonly used social expressions. Examples: “Let’s do lunch” doesn’t mean “I want to meet you for lunch at a specific time and place.” Most people understand this as a pleasantry when parting. “How are you?” is not an inquiry about one’s health, but a simple greeting to be answered with, “Fine, and you?” Poor word usage differs in that it clouds the message, causes confusion, and/or perpetuates sloppiness in writing and speaking.

  • kai-bo

    Hi David:
    In your second example the last revision is not only more accurate, it is an example of better writing. Brevity is the key to good communication.

  • venqax

    Umm…kai-bo, I think you (meaning you) mean “Brevity is key to good communication.” Don’t be verbose!

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