You as Indefinite Third Person

Wayne Mack

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This may also fit under the Pet Peeves thread, but I have a dislike for the use of You as an indefinite third person pronoun. I believe that the writer's intent is to state a general truth, but I find it reads as a command directed at the reader. This is compounded as grammar requires second person verbs also be used. For example, in a combat tale, I might see (as non-dialogue):

"When you encounter the enemy, you must stand and fight."​

Alternatives would include use of 'one' or use of a noun and 'he or she':

"When one encounters the enemy, one must stand and fight."​
"When a soldier encounters the enemy, he or she must stand and fight."​
Are others bothered by this use of you in stories? Are there other alternatives?
 
For me,

"It's them quotation marks that what makes the difference."

Quite apart from the fact I've rarely heard "one" used/said (OK, maybe Christmas day, 3:00 pm and by such like folk) in normal life, if it's in quotes then it's what was said.

If you can bear to read old "Hucky Finny"* and finish the first chapter with all your hair, then any minor problems with your example should be a walk in the park.

*"Hucky Finny" a book that should be banned from all English lessons in the UK IMHO.
 
Are others bothered by this use of you in stories? Are there other alternatives?
I always find it jarring when used by the narrative voice, even when logically I know the writer means "everyone". When writing, I've reworded the sentence so it's not necessary. I wouldn't use "one" in writing, personally, though I use it sometimes in speech for clarity.
 
I can't recall ever seeing it in narrative. That might be because I've not read any novels where it occurs, as it is the sort of thing which, if I'd noticed it, would act like fingernails scraping down a blackboard, and I'm usually quick to spot those issues.

Certainly, it's something of which I'm very aware in my own writing. When I'm commenting here on Chrons I might use "you" when speaking in generalities, but I'll usually then add "(ie 'one' not you personally)" to make it clear, and other times I've used "one" throughout to avoid any ambiguity and to achieve a more formal (not to say hieratic...) tone.

In my stories, I'd use "you" in dialogue for generalities, because it is how people speak, and if the narrative is very close, I might be tempted to use it then, but more likely I'd revamp the sentence, even at the expense of making it lawyer-speak. For example:

"Upon encountering an enemy, it's necessary to stand and fight."​

Though by using the present participle in the first clause, it's possible to make it less passive-like eg

"Upon encountering the enemy, a soldier must stand and fight."​
 
Are others bothered by this use of you in stories? Are there other alternatives?
I'm afraid that one just has to take this in one's stride, as it's far more common than using the third person alternative...

...which, in any case, sounds far more formal, if not a little bit arch (and I say that as someone who uses "one" instead of "you" quite a lot).


As an aside, I tend to feel that close third person (and first-person) narratives would (even should) be somewhat less formal than third-person omniscient** ones, in the sense that such narratives would be more like the PoV character's dialogue (albeit slightly more considered and curated). If one's PoV character would never use "one" in speech (other than to make some sort of point), it would be odd (and rather out of character) for them to use it in their narrative instead of "you".


** - And if the omniscient narrator is an identifiable character, the formality of that narrative might also benefit from being toned down a bit.
 
The indefinite would be when you use one.
The you would be second person.
In which case if it changes the person you are in; you want to avoid it. If our story is in third stick with third.

Now you as an indefinite pronoun--is not on my list of indefinite pronouns.
 
Well, in that specific example it is well applied, especially if the person who says it is a superior, in a dialogue, let's say, talking to the boys; the officers always turn from you to the troops, whether they are orders or in their doctrinal part, which is to which the example corresponds. As for the third example, it corresponds to a third-stage narrator who may even be distant.
 
Presumably this is the writer speaking as the writer, not a character's dialogue or a story told in (first-person) character? I can only think of a picture in 1984 being described as the sort whose eyes seem to follow "you", and things like "Reader, I married him" from Jane Eyre. Neither of those examples bother me that much, but it can be a bit intrusive. In a first-person story, like the Philip Marlowe novels, I'd have no problem with its use, as it's basically a character recounting the story.
 
I've always been annoyed by the fact that we don't have a plural for 'you' in 'standard' English. I've always liked the West Coast Scottish / Glaswegian (possibly imported from Irish) 'yous' as a plural and wish it would catch on.
 
I've always been annoyed by the fact that we don't have a plural for 'you' in 'standard' English. I've always liked the West Coast Scottish / Glaswegian (possibly imported from Irish) 'yous' as a plural and wish it would catch on.

Y'all works too. I'd quite like to hear it used in the Queen's speech.
 
That's perhaps because "you" originally was the plural -- the original for talking to one person was "thee/thou" which was certainly still in use in some parts of England until the C20th (eg as "tha"). "You" was lost as the plural, as it became used as a mark of respect in the same way that the French also use "vous" when talking to eg superiors and "tu" is/was only used for intimates, and gradually it displaced the singular for everyone, not just eg strangers.
 
That's perhaps because "you" originally was the plural -- the original for talking to one person was "thee/thou" which was certainly still in use in some parts of England until the C20th (eg as "tha"). "You" was lost as the plural, as it became used as a mark of respect in the same way that the French also use "vous" when talking to eg superiors and "tu" is/was only used for intimates, and gradually it displaced the singular for everyone, not just eg strangers.

Apropos tu/vous; I was informed recently by a French language for foreigners podcast (presented by a French person) that THE most deadly insult you can off er someone in France is to go from addressing them as 'tu' to 'vous'. She gave the example that a divorced couple who hated each others guts would still use 'tu' when talking to each other. To go back to 'vous' would be akin to saying 'you are dead to me' and treating them as such.

Doesn't help the discussion much but I thought it was interesting.
 
I didn't know that! I was aware that using "tu" inappropriately could end in being told off, but that was the same here with "thou" and there was a Yorkshire reprimand along the lines of "Don't thee tha them as thas thee" -- basically, an older person could "tha" a younger, but not vice versa.

What I like is they actually have verbs for it in French -- "tutoyer" and "vouvoyer". (It's the same for other languages, I understand, but my limit is schoolgirl French!)
 

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