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It’s all about ‘you’

The second person subject pronoun is an interesting one in English. We throw it about pretty liberally, and it can have very different meanings. Indeed, some languages have as many as five words for ‘you’, whereas we use just the one.

Here are some ways that English speakers consistently use the word, and how  they differ from other main European languages:

Singular and plural

In English, we refer to a group of people with the same word as one individual. A teacher might address their class by saying “you need to hand in your homework tomorrow morning”, for example. The class smart aleck, however, might then turn up the next morning without his assignment and say “oh, when you said ‘you’, I didn’t know you meant all of us. I thought you were just talking to him over there”.

In Liverpool, it’s not uncommon to hear the term ‘yous’, as in two or more people being asked “are yous watching the football later?” The dialect seems to have acquired a way to differentiate between the singular and plural second person. Other languages have this as well, with French using ‘vous’ instead of ‘tu’ when addressing more than one person.

One way that the teacher could have avoided the ambiguity, as well as the pedantry of the student, would have been to say “you all need to hand in your homework tomorrow morning”.

Familiarity and respect

In English, whether we are talking to a family member, our next-door neighbour, a complete stranger or the Queen, they are always a ‘you’. In other countries, meanwhile, addressing somebody with the wrong level of formality can lead to some embarrassment.

The French word ‘vous’, as well as being a plural, is used to show respect to a ‘you’. In German, ‘sie’ performs both functions, although the ‘s’ is capitalised when it’s the formal example. Spanish has a different word altogether, using ‘usted’ in place of the less familiar ‘tú’.

Specified or unspecified people

It’s often considered poor form in writing to address the reader as ‘you’, especially in news text. When somebody says “if you have a car, it’s easier to get to work”, the word ‘you’ there will rarely be referring to a specific person. The words ‘you have’ in this instance could be substituted for ‘a person has’.

Another option is to say “if one has a car”, but this can sound very stuffy. Using ‘one’ to refer to people in general has become something we associate with the upper class or even royalty. In German, however, the word ‘man’ is regularly used to make this distinction between specified and unspecified people, and no stigma comes with it.

Next time you use the word ‘you’, think hard about which one it is, or even if ‘one’ is it.

John is every inch the wordsmith and loves a game of Scrabble above all else. With experience writing for newspapers, John’s time at university was spent studying Creative Writing – something which comes across in his love of the pun.

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