What is it called when the pronoun "you" actually refers to me (reflexively) or simply others in general?


You know what makes them look foolish? When they accuse you of being presumptuous, when all you've done is ask sincere questions.

The "you" and "you've" actually refer to ME or just people in general. I'm not referring to the person with whom I'm speaking. What is this called?

  • Similarly when someone relates a personal experience, but describes it with 'you' instead of 'I'. "You did this, you thought that, ..." Commented Nov 29, 2022 at 17:47
  • Is it just projection? What I think, I project onto you? Commented Nov 29, 2022 at 18:38
  • @YosefBaskin agreed: when I hear someone speaking like that, it comes across as depersonalising their (perhaps traumatic) experience. Commented Nov 29, 2022 at 19:13
  • 1
    I believe "you" is simply used as an indefinite personal pronoun, not much of a specific term.
    – ermanen
    Commented Nov 29, 2022 at 19:37
  • @ermanen in the case of 'you' meaning 'one': "you take off your hat when you meet the King". In the OP's example, the use of 'you' matches the use of 'them' and 'they', but there is other usage too. Commented Nov 29, 2022 at 20:00

2 Answers 2


This is an example of what is known as deictic shifting.

Personal pronouns, such as ‘I’ and ‘you’, require a speaker/listener to continuously re-map their reciprocal relation to their referent, depending on who is saying the pronoun. This process, called ‘deictic shifting’, may underlie the incorrect production of these pronouns, or ‘pronoun reversals’, such as referring to oneself with the pronoun ‘you’....

[Akiko Mizuno,corresponding author1 Yanni Liu,1 Diane L. Williams,2 Timothy A. Keller,1 Nancy J. Minshew,3,4 and Marcel Adam Just: Brain; National Library of Medicine]

  • This doesn't seem relevant. The pronouns "you" and "I" are deictic in general. For example, imagine this exchange: Parent: "You're going to school!" Child: "Yes, <PRON> <BE>!" In the placeholders, there must be a deictic shift from "you" to "I" otherwise that's a "pronoun reversal". However, this has nothing to do with the situation mentioned in the question, where arguably there isn't a deictic shift at all — nor does there need to be.
    – Laurel
    Commented Nov 29, 2022 at 18:27
  • Most studies look at deictic shifting needed in literature, Laurel, but the more narrowly specified ' ... readerly deictic shifting ... ' [Andrea Macrae; Oxford Brookes University] shows that this is only one (though doubtless the default) arena where the expression 'deictic shifting' applies. More generally, a shift in deictic centre (for whatever reason, including error). Commented Nov 30, 2022 at 16:24

Although the term generic you is used to mean the you that we use in speech in place of one to avoid sounding like a grammar textbook, it is also used for the you that stands in for I or me.

According to Why People Say ‘You’ When They Mean ‘Me’ at Live Science:

. . . people say “you” to make it easier to talk about a negative experience, according to the study. In this sense, the word “you” can, somewhat obliquely, mean “me.”

For example, people may say, “you win some, you lose some,” when they have just failed at a task, but by using “you” instead of “I,” they communicate that failure can happen to anyone, not just that individual, the study said. . . .

Together, the findings suggest that the generic-you provides a way to “move beyond one’s own perspective” and derive meaning from personal experiences . . .

The study the article references is at science.org, but there are plenty of others.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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