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While having a conversation, I say: "When you say atheist, most people would imagine an anti-religious person". What I meant by 'you' is actually anybody. When I am using 'you' in such a manner, what am I doing? Is there a name/word for it? Is it using a 'figure of speech'?

Thank you

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2 Answers 2

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This informal usage of the second person pronoun not directed to a specific person or group is called the ubiquitous you. It substitutes for the indefinite one, which seems too formal to some, although someone or somebody does equally well in most registers.

Addendum

The term is found in these grammar exercises in Sweden, a discussion of a Maya Angelou poem, a blog for teachers of composition, a handout for high school students, an explanatory parenthetical in a forum post, and finally, not quite understood in a blog post. Considering how long ago I learned the term, if it hadn’t been in use since that time, I doubt seriously if it would show up at all. Perhaps others learned and use a different terminology, but the main point is that this usage is not as a second personal pronoun addressing a specific person or group, but as an indefinite third person. Whatever terminology conveys that meaning is sufficient.

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    I think that this is a better answer than the one obtained by the duplicate.
    – Nigel J
    May 20, 2018 at 15:24
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    @Nigel J Incorrect. The article there doesn't use 'ubiquitous you' the way 'generic / impersonal / indefinite you' are used. The latter are fixed phrases / compounds. The usage in the linked article is equivalent to 'the wide-ranging word you'; try searching elsewhere for the string. The article even makes this clear, italicising 'you' but not the freely-associated adjective 'ubiquitous'. May 20, 2018 at 15:30
  • The ubiquitous you was what I learned to term this usage. I thought it a bit odd at the time, but I did learn the word ubiquitous as a bonus.
    – KarlG
    May 20, 2018 at 16:26
  • You need to supply another example showing that this is a fixed phrase / compound (like 'hot dog') and not just a free association (like 'wet dog'). But I strongly doubt you'll find one. May 20, 2018 at 16:30
  • @EdwinAshworth: just google "the ubiquitous you" and disregard all references to a pop song. It may not be that current a term, but it gets the point across.
    – KarlG
    May 20, 2018 at 16:41
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It's called an indefinite or generic use of you.
It's equivalent to the more formal indefinite pronoun one:

  • You never know what you'll find there.
  • One never knows what one will find there.

or other indefinite NPs, like

  • People never know what they'll find there.

In all these examples, the subject NPs don't refer to any specific individual,
but rather to anyone who fits the description in the sentence.

In my experience, the use of the indefinite you is especially frequent in giving advice,
where the you can refer either specifically to the addressee, or to an indefinite person,
or to both, which makes it convenient.

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  • Now here we go. Just buzzing along. :)
    – Lambie
    May 20, 2018 at 21:57
  • It's not the only indefinite usage, of course. Pronouns are tricky little things. May 20, 2018 at 22:16

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