Generic You Grammar Tip

As most linguists will tell you, most spoken forms, even the colloquial or dialectal forms that your writing instructor tells you not to use – just not ones that are documented on paper. Ironically, the grammar of these forms are hard to nail down because in colloquial speech, it’s rare that they are used ungrammatically (that is in a way that people don’t understand). To make it worse, it’s hard to find informants who are willing to admit that they use the construction and are willing to sit down to run through weird linguistic tests.

Occasionally though, someone does make a mistake – either through irony or sometimes through imitating a form he or she doesn’t really know. And then, you get an insight!

Take the case of “generic you” …

Generic you is when you use the second person singular to mean “anyone” as in ‘You always eat turkey at Thanksgiving in the U.S.!’

In written English, the use of “one” is preferred, as in:

Generic you is when one uses the second person singular to mean anyone as in “One always eats turkey at Thanksgiving.

People object to generic you partly because they feel that it’s not semantically logical (as if that really counts in grammar). But as this blog post from Mr Kyle notes, it is very common in modern English.

As Mr Kyle alludes, many people use “you” when they really mean “I” (as in “You get depressed when work on a dissertation all day and really begin to look forward to the Martha Stewart show “). But generic you and “I” are not actually interchangable – there is a restriction.

Specifically, “you” only works in contexts when a speaker means “me and anyone else in my hypothetical situation.” If the context is so specific that the situation describes ONLY THE SPEAKER then generic you is ungrammatical. Mr Kyle actually has a few of these as ironic “examples” of how to use this construction (they are meant to sound totally silly…and they do.)

  1. *You enjoyed answering these questions
    = I (Mr Kyle) enjoyed answering these questions
  2. *You wish you all good luck.
    = I (Mr Kyle) wish you all good luck
  3. ?You’d like some pancakes – this won’t work if a waiter is taking your order, but can work if you are narrating a story about someone in search of breakfast treats.

Thus the following advice is not accurate (Mr. Kyle will be crushed)

How do I do [refer to myself in the second person]?

Easy. When referring to yourself, simply replace the word “I’ with the word ‘you’. For example, if asked what you’d like for breakfast, instead of, “I’d like some pancakes”, respond, “You’d like some pancakes.”

It really should be more like:

How (and when) can you do refer to yourself in the second person?

Easy. Place your sentence in a context which can apply to both you (as speaker) and to other people. If the situation only applies to you (as speaker), you cannot use this construction and must switch to first person.

As silly as this discussion sounds, it is important to note a principal which is that speakers don’t realize how complicated speaking is. Language (vs. good writing) seems very easy because we do it everyday (and use constructions like generic without thinking about things like “context”), but when you actually try to describe it, it is amazingly tricky stuff.

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