From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
In English grammar, generic you or indefinite you is the use of the pronoun you to refer to an unspecified person. Generic one is the use of one in the same way.
In casual English, the second person pronoun you often takes on the additional role of a generic pronoun. In more formal speech, the pronoun "one" serves this function; but as a pronoun (notably not when it signifies the number 1), it is felt to be somewhat awkward, and is infrequently used outside the most formal styles. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the use of this word as a pronoun in English was influenced by French on, which is not a number, but a reduced form of homme, "human being, person". Its most common use is to represent the sense "I and other people", as in Jane Austen's:
- I do not think him so very ill-looking as I did — at least one sees many worse.
- — Mansfield Park (1814)
In some works of fiction, especially those written in second-person narrative, generic one is used to contrast with the you who refers to the narrating character specifically:
- As long as one is at one's desk by ten-thirty, one is relatively safe. Somehow you manage to miss this banker's deadline at least once a week.
- — Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City (1984)
It is much less common (even in other formal situations) when used in giving directions to the reader, as it seems especially remote and stuffy. The genitive case is especially awkward: One should always wash one's hands. In more idiomatic speech, this would be rendered as You should always wash your hands. The imperfect domestication of generic one has caused respected writers to lose track of grammatical agreement, producing constructions such as one … they:
- … in a nasty Scottish jail, where one cannot even get the dirt brushed off their clothes.
- — Sir Walter Scott
one … he:
- And one must be careful not to shoot himself.
- — Stuart Chase, in The Tyranny of Words
and one … you:
- When one is very old, as I am … your legs give in before your head does.
- — George Bernard Shaw
Generic you, by contrast, creates no such difficulties. Other circumlocutions are resorted to in English to avoid the awkwardness of generic one, such as resort to the passive voice. The idiomatic English translation of the French sentence Ici on parle français, literally, "here one speaks French" or "here someone speaks French", is "French is spoken here". Spanish, Portuguese and some other Romance languages resort to a reflexive verb in this context: se habla español/fala-se português, literally "Spanish/Portuguese speaks itself" but meaning "Spanish/Portuguese is spoken". Since the more recent traditions of linguistic prescription and usage commentary in English also discourage the passive voice, this too may draw criticism.
The phenomenon of generic you, though decried in the works of some still-read prescriptivist grammarians, is so widespread that it is nearly standard usage. The writer and usage commentator E. B. White wrote that:
- As for me, I try to avoid the impersonal one but have discovered that it is like a face you keep encountering in the streets and can't always avoid bowing to.
This is not the first case of a pronoun changing meaning, or acquiring an additional meaning, over time. The word you originally referred strictly to the second-person plural, being cognate with the German ihr and the French vous. When the second-person singular form thou was abandoned, you absorbed its functions.
Note that you can be ambiguous; it is not always obvious whether the generic you or a semantically second-person you is meant. For example, in "you never know what John is thinking about", you could as easily refer to the audience as to people in general. Sometimes stress (linguistics) and intonation can help convey the difference; for example, generic you is generally unstressed, a stressed you generally refers to the audience.
- Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (E. Ward Gilman, ed.) Merriam-Webster, 1993. ISBN 0-87779-132-5
- Disputed English grammar
- Gender-neutral pronouns
- Singular they