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What Is the Generic You?

The "generic you" is a powerful linguistic tool, allowing us to express universal truths and shared experiences. It's when we use 'you' to mean 'anyone,' connecting us through commonality. This subtle yet impactful part of speech reveals much about human nature and communication. How often do you find yourself using the generic you? Let's explore this together.
G. Wiesen
G. Wiesen

The generic you is an indefinite pronoun that is often used in third person, which essentially is meant to refer to a large population. Confusion can arise in using this term, however, since “you” is often used to indicate a very particular person, when it is used as a definite pronoun. The generic you should typically only be used in informal writing since it is considered familiar and should be avoided in most academic or professional writing in the third person. An alternative to this “you” is the indefinite pronoun “one,” which can seem quite stuffy or overly academic in some situations.

This can be found in a sentence like “It is important for you to finish your homework before watching television.” While this sentence can be read as being written in second person, when it would be addressing a particular individual, it can also be in third person. In this format, the “you” in the sentence is a generic you that does not necessarily refer to the specific reader, but to people in general.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

Use of the generic you is considered informal and is often found in conversation; it should only be used in casual writing. Someone writing an email or memo to a friend can use this “you” without an issue, although care should be used to ensure there is not confusion. A reader may see a “you” and assume that something is written in second person, and that “you” refers to the reader. People reading a sentence like “For proper health, you should really eat more vegetables,” could assume it is addressed specifically to them. This use of the generic you can lead to miscommunication and offense, so care should be taken in its presentation.

A much more formal alternative to the generic you is the word “one,” which can be used in much the same way. The example earlier could be rewritten as “It is important for one to finish one’s homework before watching television.” Both of these examples are grammatically accurate, but the use of “one” makes this latter sentence feel much more formal and potentially stuffy. For academic or professional writing the use of “one” can be acceptable, though overuse can become repetitive quite quickly.

In general, writers should avoid indefinite pronouns like the generic you. More specific terms with greater meaning can be used to identify a subject. The previous example might be rewritten as “It is important for students to finish their homework before watching television.” This is specific and makes the sentence easier to read.

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      Woman standing behind a stack of books