The lack of distinction of singular-plural pronouns for the second person in English (quite strange for native Spanish speakers, as myself) is usually unimportant, I guess, because the ambiguity is either irrelevant or obvious from them context. But I was wondering, from a translator point of view, about narratives in second person. Take for example the beginning of "The catcher in the rye":

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

Or, from "The mating season" (P. G. Wodehouse)

I wonder, by the way, if you recall this Augustus, on whose activities I have had occasion to touch once or twice before now? Throw the mind back. Goofy to the gills, face like a fish, horn-rimmed spectacles, drank orange juice, collected newts, engaged to England's premier pill, a girl called Madeline Bassett ... Ah, you've got him? Fine.

In Spanish, these examples areusually translated as plural (ustedes/vosotros), but the truth is that literature uses both forms: singular (the author speaks directly with the present individual reader) and plural (the author speaks globally to "the public"). Do English native speakers assume (from some rule, convention, or spontaneously) the singular or the plural person here, or it's inherently ambiguous?

  • 1
    Both occur in literature.
    – tchrist
    Nov 23, 2013 at 18:37
  • 1
    Yes, and you/your(s) is inherently ambiguous between second person singular and plural. Just like we/us/our(s) is inherently ambiguous between first person plural inclusive and exclusive. Nov 23, 2013 at 18:58
  • @leonbloy It's not the same as Spanish; the conjugation is the same for both 2nd person singular and plural. You, as the reader, can decide whom the audience is speaking to. Most of the time it doesn't change much. Also, you have these ambiguities in Spanish too. Don't ser (to be) and ir (to go) have the exact same preterite conugations? Can you tell the difference? Of course. Nov 23, 2013 at 22:54

3 Answers 3


Second person is relatively unusual in literary use, particularly as published.* Of these even fewer maintain the second person throughout all or most of the narrative.

Now, of these again, some are quite clearly addressed to a particular character postulated by the narrative itself, perhaps as an identifiable character or perhaps not. Say for example the opening of The Perks of Being a Wallflower:

Dear friend,

I am writing to you because she said you listen and understand and didn't try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have.

As such, it is clearly second-person singular. By extension, one could just as well have a case that is clearly second-person plural.

Other cases may address the reader as the reader themselves (rather than as with Perks that we may not quite the same person to whom the letters are addressed). Sometimes the reader has qualities ascribed to them, e.g. in Bright Lights Big City:

You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy.

We're just one person. Also we're a guy! Also we're not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at a time like this.

As such, while this is addressed to the reader, it also is addressed to a fiction, who we are asked to temporarily identify with. This is also the case with other point-of-view uses within other narrative arts, such as a point-of-view film, or a point-of-view computer game (Gone Home is an interesting case, in which the computer game medium is used solely to tell a story, and in this the "reader/player" is an American heterosexual woman in her early 20s even if someone like me is playing it, who has not been in my early 20s for some time, and never been any of the rest of those things).

And again, it is just about possible that when a writer conflates the reader with a particular fictional personality, that they might do so in the plural.

In most cases though the reader is no so firmly identified with a given personality, they remain merely, "the reader".

Now, one of the disadvantages of contemporary standard English is that after thou and ye became obsolete, you has been ambiguous as to number (many dialects have a way of being precise at least about the plural by retaining ye or introducing youse or you'all etc.)

However, one of the advantages of contemporary standard English, is this same ambiguity. In terms of "the reader" it's normal to refer to the reader in the first person as plural (note I used "we" above even when talking specifically about the singular) because when we talk about the reader in the first person we are talking about shared experience - what I and you and others all experience as the reader.

In terms of the reader as second person, we most often live in the ambiguity. After all, when I write something that isn't specifically addressed to a particular person then I am thinking both of the reader as a plurality of readers, but also as a hypothetical individual reader. And the ambiguity of English allows us to stay with that ambiguity easily.

If we address the reader as "reader" ("Reader, I married him." - Jane Eyre) we are using singular, but even this can be combined with other phrases that suggest plurality.

If we address the reader directly enough that number is unavoidable, then singular is probably most common, but plural would be far from unusual, and it's a matter of style and what best suits the needs of the writer. (In particular, if I want to address the range of experiences across my audience, then I must per force use the plural, but conversely addressing a singular reader affords a greater sense of intimacy).

But very often, we get to live in the ambiguity.

*More than a few comments from literary agents and editors would suggest that the percentage of works in the second person written is greater than the percentage published.


In US English we generally absorb the ambiguity. My first "language" was English as it is spoken in the Southern United States where "you-all" is often used as a 2nd person plural. I'll still use the word, or one of its variants, in conversation when I think the sense of plurality is needed. A logical alternative, "you people," must be used with care because in certain contexts this term may be offensive.

  • We do the same thing in the North, except we don't contract it to y'all. In my experience, people only do that when it's ambiguous though. I tend to do the opposite from you: I almost invariably assume that the author is speaking to a large group of people and not just me. Anyway, whichever way you read it, it makes little difference. Nov 23, 2013 at 22:47

In passages such as the two examples you shared, the narrator is engaging in an intimate conversation with the reader. The reader, for his part, is most likely reading the book alone or listening to an audio version alone. Even he is reading while sitting on a park bench -- it's still an inward, solitary activity. If the book is being read out loud between two intimates at bedtime, that again is a an intimate experience. The writing itself, and even more, the reading, are part of a tête-à-tête.

When the author addresses the reader directly, the you is generally intended, and perceived, as singular.

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