When writing about a general topic in emails, essays, business correspondence or whatever, I often wonder which generic person pronoun to use. My quick Google search for sample sentences using such pronouns as one, people, you etc. returned a lot of examples, but I haven't been able to figure out any rules or general tendency in them.

Is there any common ground of understanding among native English speakers when to use "one", "people", "you" etc?

The following are just some sample sentences I checked during my Google search.

One cannot choose the period of history in which one lives.


You will never know the particular virus that gets you.

We Have a Cheap, Effective Way to Keep Ourselves Safer From COVID-19.

When people think “librarian,” they say, “Oh, must be kind of dull.”

  • 'You will never know the particular virus that gets you' effectively conveys a threat; 'you' hints at confrontation. 'We' connotes solidarity, 'We're all in this together'. Commented Aug 22, 2020 at 13:02
  • "One" not only sounds formal but may often sound pretentious, as if the speaker is adopting a lofty and detached viewpoint.
    – Anton
    Commented Aug 22, 2020 at 15:13

1 Answer 1


One is rather formal; OK in a serious essay, but would seem stilted and pretentious in a chatty email.

People/they is less formal.

You and we are informal. Instructions in a conversational tone can be given in the form "First you need to do this..." We emphasises the fact that the writer includes themself in the generalisation - "We need to take care...".

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