In this case, "you" is 15 people.

Are both of these correct?

  • Most of you would do the right thing if you knew
  • Most of you would do the right thing if they knew

I initially thought the second was correct, but I was told the first one is… Now I've looked at both of them too long to be able to tell 😅.

  • 1
    They’re different. Consider: “I know most of you speed because you know they aren’t policing very much. I also know that most of you would do the right thing if they knew.”
    – Jim
    May 3, 2020 at 23:45
  • 1
    You could make a case for "Most of your group would do the right if they knew" even if you were addressing the entire group because that could be regarded as treating the members of the class as a third person even though you were addressing them all directly. However switching between second person and third person as in "Most of you would do the right thing if they knew" is completely wrong. It's a bit like mixing singular and plural in the same sentence.
    – BoldBen
    Oct 6, 2020 at 8:04

4 Answers 4


In British English you can never switch between pronouns in the same sentence, so whether or not the example here with they is ambiguous, it wouldn’t pass muster.

In American English it appears common to switch between one and you — the most usual alternatives — and this view is supported by this online article and this one.

I do not know whether American English allows switching between you and they, although in the example quoted, as already mentioned, it is ambiguous and therefore to be avoided.

  • 1
    Well, technically, you can. However, the subject changes if you do that. You = your immediate audience. They = ? (police? parents? figure of authority?)
    – psosuna
    May 5, 2020 at 19:18
  • And in AmE if I recall correctly, switching from you to they and still meaning the same subject is still incorrect, but may happen by native speakers sometimes even if incorrect.
    – psosuna
    May 5, 2020 at 19:20
  • It used to be that you could mix one and his, both in British and American English (one must do his duty). See Ngram. In American English, with gender-neutral pronouns, you can now say one must do their duty or do your duty. I don't know whether you can use any pronouns other than his (not gender-neutral) or one's in British English nowadays. Oct 1, 2021 at 13:41

I think it depends on what the speaker means. "Most of you would do the right think if you knew," indicates that the speaker is referring to the audience for the entire sentence; meaning that the audience would do 'something' if the audience knew 'something'.

To me, "Most of you would do the right thing if they knew," suggests a third party involved. For example, "Most of you(audience) would do the right thing if they(police/figure of authority/etc.) knew."

In my experiences, when addressing an audience, if the speaker uses a pronoun, (i.e. they, he, she, etc.), then it hasn't typically referred to anyone in the audience unless they say, "(Specific audience member(s)), they/he/she..." and so on. So, if the second "you/they" is referring to the audience specifically, and not a third party, then the correct sentence would be, "Most of you would do the right thing if you knew."

  • Hello, Akhiro. The two possible meanings (previously mentioned third party?) have been addressed in early comments. Your 'So, if the second "you/they" is referring to the audience specifically, and not a third party, then...." applies here. But an unsupported answer 'then the correct sentence would be, "Most of you would do the right thing if you knew," ' is not all that helpful, especially after David's (again unsupported) concessive third paragraph. Jun 15, 2022 at 11:29

A perusal of the numerous examples afforded by the ngram "most of you would" shows that when the pronouns and possessives apply to the group identified by "you" in "most of you", it is never the case of the third person being chosen; it is always the pronoun "you" and the possessive determiner "your". (never "they", "them", "their").

This should perhaps not be taken as the last word on the question. That seems to be the most logical choice when the speaker thinks proper to impute the state of knowing to the whole group out of which a subgroup corresponding to "most of you" is defined. However, an anaphoric refernce to only the selected group, or in other words to "most of you" would appear to be properly made through the use of the third person pronouns and determiners.

  • The last paragraph does not seem to make sense.
    – Xanne
    May 4, 2020 at 0:11
  • @Xanne The long and the short of it is that when you want to refer to all the people you are talking to as people who know, you might use the second person plural, whereas if you intend to say that knowing applies only to the subgroup you consider (most of you) then according to the principle of anaphoric reference you might use the third person plural. (The birds wouldn't have flown away if they hadn't heard that noise.)
    – LPH
    May 4, 2020 at 11:43

This is the correct answer.

Most of you would do the right thing if you knew

You can't switch between you and they. The former refers to the people being addressed. The latter to other people not being addressed. The two terms have logically distinct referents.

That's the end.

  • I'm sorry, PH, but 'This is the correct answer....' is totally inappropriate on ELU. Unsupported answers (and the best answers here are accompanied by such auspicious references as McCawley, Aarts, Quirk, Huddleston & Pullum ...) come across as, and may be no more than, a pundit's opinion. Jun 15, 2022 at 10:02
  • 'Welcome to English Language & Usage! Please explain your answer, preferably with some supporting statements and references. While opinions are valued, they are not of much help as answers. – NVZ' // 'We are looking for more substantial answers with documented references, not merely [statements that may possibly be no more than] personal opinion. Those are just comments, not answers. – tchrist' [♦moderator] // 'Note that this site is a bit different from other Q&A sites: an answer is expected to be ... Jun 17, 2022 at 10:54
  • authoritative, detailed, and explain why it is correct. Your suggestion may well be the correct one, but it's lacking one crucial element: evidence. – Chappo' //// I've databanked many similar comments over the years. //// Even Professor Lawley, a published grammarian, adds linked references to research. Jun 17, 2022 at 10:55

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