9

I've had this conversation several times in my life, where I use a second-person pronoun when actually using the third-person:

"If you were dressed up as a clown at night holding black balloons, I would be suspicious too!"
"I would never dress like a clown."

Or exempting the 'if' from the sentence:

"You choose to join the organization, then you're responsible for that organization's beliefs and policies."

"I am not a member of that organization"

It's actually hard to come up with examples for this off the top of my head. The point is that I use 'you' as a third person pronoun because it's hypothetical, but it's taken literally, and I want to be able to tell the person I'm talking to what the name of the grammatical construct is so that he or she doesn't misunderstand me.

  • 7
    It's not third person. It refers to an indefinite person, but it takes second person agreement, not third person. – John Lawler Aug 9 '16 at 17:44
  • 2
  • Gotta love that overly excessive bureaucracy inherent to Stack Exchange putting an answered question on hold. – NobleUplift Aug 12 '16 at 20:39
  • @JohnLawler it takes a second person pronoun but is not referring to the second person (the actual you) in this case. If the pronoun isn't referring to I, then it is being used as a third person. – NobleUplift Aug 12 '16 at 20:43
  • No, person is a grammatical concept, and depends on inflection. If it takes second-person inflection, it's second-person. What it refers to is irrelevant. German Sie is in fact third person plural, though it's used for polite 'you'; similarly, Usted in Spanish is also third person, despite the same meaning. Rather like Your Majesty and His Majesty both being third person. Third person is more polite than second, so it's often used for polite (i.e, catering to nobles) 2nd person. – John Lawler Aug 12 '16 at 23:08
17

I believe it's called "generic you." From Wikipedia:

In English grammar and in particular in casual English, generic you, impersonal you or indefinite you is the pronoun you in its use in referring to an unspecified person, as opposed to its use as the second person pronoun.

The generic you is primarily used as a colloquial or less formal substitute for one.1[2] For instance,

"Brushing one's teeth is healthy."

can be expressed less formally as

"Brushing your teeth is healthy."
17

This is called an impersonal pronoun, and it is equivalent to using one. It is just a convention we have in English that we can use the second person pronoun in this context.

Other languages have other conventions for referring to a person as a generic object, and may not use the second person at all.

  • 1
    I was thinking 'one' as well. – Fayth85 Aug 9 '16 at 18:05
  • I believe 'you' is being used as an impersonal pronoun, but generic you is more specific. – NobleUplift Aug 9 '16 at 18:54
  • Fair point, I guess 'they' is also an impersonal pronoun but not an instance of generic you, so it depends on how general the OP wanted the definition to be. – Rhidian Aug 9 '16 at 19:10

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.