Who is Meant by “You”?
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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