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.

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    It's not third person. It refers to an indefinite person, but it takes second person agreement, not third person. Aug 9, 2016 at 17:44
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  • Gotta love that overly excessive bureaucracy inherent to Stack Exchange putting an answered question on hold. Aug 12, 2016 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. Aug 12, 2016 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. Aug 12, 2016 at 23:08

2 Answers 2


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."
  • This was accepted as the answer but I believe @Rhidian's "impersonal pronoun" is the correct and better answer.
    – Andy Dent
    Aug 10, 2016 at 5:56
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    @P.Obertelli Thank you for setting a good example by editing the answer to include the expected information.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Aug 11, 2016 at 11:27

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.

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    I was thinking 'one' as well.
    – Fayth85
    Aug 9, 2016 at 18:05
  • I believe 'you' is being used as an impersonal pronoun, but generic you is more specific. Aug 9, 2016 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, 2016 at 19:10

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