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In high school English, it was imparted to us that in formal American English when speaking about an indefinite party, we should use the word one. For example, "One should cover his or her mouth when he or she has to cough". This seems a bit stilted and awkward--before this instruction was given to us, I believe most of us would have used you--"You should cover your mouth when you have to cough." In formal and business writing, which word should one (or you) use?

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Perhaps "One should cover one's mouth when one has to cough" would be better? –  psmears Feb 14 '11 at 21:48

2 Answers 2

up vote 2 down vote accepted

Both are fine, but the second-person you sounds more direct and thus less polite than the third-person one — almost like an order as opposed to a hint.

If I wanted to both use you and sound polite, I would go with the simple alternative:

Please cover your mouth when you have to cough.

Lastly, if you need a shorter alternative for the rather cumbersome "his or her" and "he or she", there's the singular "they".

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-1: Call me a pedant, but I hate using 'they' as singular. I often just use 'he' rather than 'he or she', but when people are sensitive about gender issues, 'one' works well, but so does 'he or she'. Of course, it's always nicer when talking of an abstract person in a possibly offensive way to use 'one'. For example, 'Isn't it horrible when people talk to you, you always feel as if you have to respond?' sounds less polite than, 'Isn't it horrible when people talk to one, one always feels as if one has to respond?' Of course, 'I find it horrible when . . .' works almost as well. –  J D OConal Oct 16 '10 at 2:40
    
@JDOConal: PEDANT!!!! –  Daniel Sep 25 '11 at 23:03
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Whether it's polite or not depends on the context. "You should think before you blurt out ideas" would likely come across as an insult. "One should think before one blurts out ideas" is less direct and therefore potentially less insulting. But if it's something positive you're better to be direct. Like if rather than saying to your wife, "Oh baby, you're so hot, I love it when you do that", you instead said, "Oh baby, some women are so hot, I love it when one does that", you're just asking for trouble. –  Jay Feb 3 '12 at 19:25

one = I and anyone else including you

you = you and anyone else including myself

They mean basically the same but have different emphasis on who it really applies to. Correct me if I'm wrong, but that's my view.

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