Dawn Colclasure's Blog

Author and poet Dawn Colclasure

Friday, April 24, 2009

You, you, you, and, yes, even YOU!

For my English Comp class during those college days, I got back one of the many papers I wrote with the notation: "Do not use 'you.'" This was alongside a paragraph in which I had, indeed, resorted to using "you" in a sentence. I can't for the life of me recall the sentence itself, but for the purposes of this blog post, I'll provide some imagined example: "Most of the time, you can get away with using a word in a sentence even when some grammarians will only shake their heads and fuss over it."

With my teacher's warning in mind, however, I paid closer attention to just how I wrote those kinds of sentences. If I couldn't use "you," then what were my options? Read them and weep:

"One." As in, "If one prefers to drink milk instead of coffee in the mornings, then one has every right to do so." (Feeling prudish yet?)

"People." As in, "Some people prefer to drink milk in the morning instead of coffee, which is no crime, really."

The mysterious "you" that shall forever remain unnamed. As in, "Go ahead and drink milk in the morning instead of that cup of joe, if that's the preferred morning beverage." (I know, that sentence sucks. But you get the idea.)

The whole point of avoiding the use of "you" is to avoid a situation in which readers get the idea that the "you" is them personally, and not some generalized "you" being referenced. Such as the sentence "it's always nice if you send a card to your grandmother for her birthday" provoking a reader to cry out, "But my Grandma's not even alive!" In many cases, I saw some article writers resort to the following: "Sometimes you (and I mean "you" in general, and not "you" personally) might be able to get away with one or two grammar goofs in your writing."

Personally, I am not a fan of ANY of those alternatives. Oh, I tried using "one." I tried using "people." I tried to avoid using "you" (and I mean "you" the word and not YOU personally) in all of my writings. However, despite my best efforts, the pieces I wrote just didn't feel right. Using "one" was too archaic. And saying "people" sort of hammered in the impression that I was specifically referring to a giant chunk of humanity.

So I got back to using "you" in my writing, all the while dreading that my English Comp professor would hunt me down and beat me to a pulp with her ruler. To be honest, it just felt more comfortable using "you" instead of "one." I suddenly felt in with the times again! I was a hip writer again! I was finally my old writing self, using the same words that everybody else was using. Catch my drift, man?

I wrote my sentences using "you," all the while thinking that readers would be smart enough to know what I was talking about. That they would "get" it that I was referring to "you" in general and not "you" personally. Even though I had a couple of readers react with "no, that's not ME!" I still continued using "you" instead of "one."

Then reality struck. After a while and after many articles and essays appeared with that dreaded "you" within its paragraphs, I got struck with the first of many complaints from readers who took my use of "you" in a brand new negative way.

To be precise, using "you" in my writing made readers think I was trying to act like some expert on some topic or another. For sentences like "you can try a bedtime routine to help your child fall asleep better at night" or "when you write your book, don't expect it to be perfect in the first draft," there aroused some debate from readers about me trying to impersonate some parenting expert or bestselling author. (And this criticism usually came from people I know.) This pretty much put me into a position of getting insults and teasing remarks thrown my way any time I opened my mouth about such subjects. (One person, who was not even a parent, took my comment on parenting with the following retort: "You should put that in your book.")

It's understandable, even natural, for readers to perceive the writer is acting authoritatively on the topic when using the word "you" in some sentences. It's just a natural instinct to perceive that kind of sentence as though it is coming from an authoritative figure, because we grew up with authoritative figures saying things like "you better stop sitting too close to the TV or else your eyes will get scrunched up" or "you need to eat your vegetables so that you can grow up big and strong." When it comes to sentences which offer advice, it's easy to take this as advice coming from an expert.

"You don't have to worry about grammar rules when you write the first draft of your book."

"You can always ask the bank to revoke the fee if you have proof it should not be there."

"Don't worry if the clothes don't fit; you can always return them if they are not damaged, you still have your receipt and you still have the tags."

But there is a very big difference when a writer is using "you" in those kinds of sentences. We writers are not acting as some kind of expert on writing, on banking policies or on retail. We are echoing advice that everybody practically knows by know. We know the first draft can have a few grammar mistakes, or hundreds of grammar mistakes, because it's only the first draft. (Hundreds of grammar mistakes? Yikes. That makes me cringe.) We know we can contest a bank fee and that we have to show proof as to why we are contesting it. We know we can return an item of clothing if it doesn't fit us.

So why even put these everyday facts that everybody should already know by now into our writing?

Because we as writers are not just stringing words together. We are acting as that gentle voice of reassurance of something. We are acting as guides on what we have learned and experienced. We are acting as entertainers, world-weavers, instructors and motivators in this crazy life where we tend to forget even the most simplest of things or just don't understand things in the way that we should. We writers have a duty to our readers to adequately and confidently inform, enlighten, reassure, nurture and educate on a variety of subjects with which we have armed ourselves with sufficient knowledge via research and experience.

This is how we are able to put together the writing we create, and the writing we have a responsibility to create. This is why we are able to confidently use the word "you" in a way in which readers are assured that this particular method is a method that could work. Seeing a sentence such as "when you walk to your car, carry your keys in your hand so that they can be used for self defense" will assure a reader that this is just one good idea they can put to use with the trust in the writer for having done adequate research on self-defense tips for women. We writers know that trust is there, and we don't want to break that trust.

So for future reference, when you (and I mean "you" the reader of this blog post) see the word "you" in a sentence, just know that, unless the writer specifies, it doesn't mean "you" personally. It just means some "you" in general. Some other unseen "you" that the writer needs to enlist for the purposes of an example or instruction. But it's an example or suggestion that you, personally, can consider for your own situations. Because many of us writers are here for you, personally.



  • At 8:17 AM , Blogger Jamie D. said...

    Interesting perspective you have here. :-) I actually learned not to use the word "you" in a general sense way back in grade school, when learning to do demonstrations (how-to do "something) for 4-H. We were taught never to use the word "you", not only because it had a know-it-all connotation, but because it was simply too familiar (which is what you're describing as general vs. personal usage, I think). So I actually grew up avoiding the use of "you" in writing as well, just naturally, since I was always very conscious of it when speaking. Even now, I rarely use a generic "you" in speech - I normally only use it in the personal sense, and choose "one" or "people" otherwise. I do try to follow that in my writing as well, simply to avoid misconstrued meanings.

    But as with everything, *you* have to do what works for *you*... ;-)

  • At 8:35 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    I usually stick with "one" in my own writings.

    But it doesn't bother me if another writer uses, "you". I kinda figure they're speaking in general terms. Why would someone I never met speak to me directly?

    The only time it would annoy me is if someone wrote, "You must..." The "must" would bother me. Not the, "you."

    Very good article.

  • At 1:39 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    And here i was expecting you (and i mean you the writer, here :D) to finish the post with, 'What do you think?'

    I'm with you, though, mostly. While i generally use 'one' or find a way to rewrite the sentence so it doesn't require an imperative (i'm not even sure that's the right grammatical term), i always wish i could use a simple 'you' at those times. And sometimes i do, just to satisfy that urge. And then i come back and edit and change it :D

    Interesting post, Dawn.

  • At 4:51 PM , Blogger Dawn Wilson said...

    Hi, Jamie. Thanks for commenting. :) It's a good thing you mastered a way to avoid using "you" in your writing. Very hard to do! Like I said, it's hard using "one" because I feel so outdated. And you've got a point; just go with what feels right. :)

    Hi, Gypsy. Always nice to see you commenting here. :) I totally agree with you about the "must" thing. That's definitely overstepping the comfort zone. I'm glad you are able to read the "you" sentences without misunderstanding that it's not directed at YOU, personally. I wish there were more people like that! But, all the same, to each their own -- on both sides of the page!

    Hi, Isaac. Thank you for visiting. :)

    I know they say it's best to err on the side of caution, but like I said, it's hard to write that particular sentence with "one" instead of "you." If at all possible, I resort to writing something like "you can try" or "one thing you can do" so it doesn't look so authoritative or personalized. It's great you have the discipline to avoid those sticky situations by making your sentences completely understandable and not open to the wrong impression. Maybe one of these days, I'll get the hang of that, too. Thanks for reading!

  • At 7:40 AM , Blogger LK Hunsaker said...

    I don't like "one" either. It's impersonal and uninteresting. I don't tend to do a lot of non-fiction (other than blog posts which should be personal) to have to worry about it much either way, but when I do, I often work around it instead.

    However, when you're writing an article, you should be an expert enough to be okay sounding like one. If you're not, why are you writing the article? Some people are too touchy.

  • At 8:05 AM , Blogger Dawn Wilson said...

    Hi, Loraine. Thank you for commenting. :) And, you know, that is a GREAT point! I totally agree. If you haven't done enough research and/or know enough on the topic to write a good, helpful article, then don't bother proceeding. You DO need to really know your stuff and know what you're talking about when writing an article. That is what readers expect of writers. They expect that the writer knows enough and has done enough research to stand by what they say.

  • At 8:17 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    well I truly believe that sometimes
    "you" is the only word that will work, but alot of times my little self edit bell rings while I'm writing and I change it immediately. There is a fine line here that must be walked, and sometimes as in this very sentence, a point can be made without the use of "you"....

    Moderate use of the word "you" will not result in a fat manuscript, ha ha ha But if you overdue it, some sort of reduction plan will be necessary ha ha ha ha

    Can you tell I'm a diet? LOL

  • At 8:52 AM , Blogger Dawn Wilson said...

    Hi, Nancy. Thanks for commenting. :) And, yes. It's pretty obvious! LOL You've made a good point on avoiding an overuse of "you" in one piece. Not just because it's overkill, but all of that "you" this and "you" that would definitely kill a reader's feeling that they, personally, are not being addressed directly by the writer. Complete stranger or no, it can get pretty annoying and take away from that sense of understanding each other.

  • At 8:44 AM , Blogger colbymarshall said...

    The "one" just sounds so formal to me. I am probably more inclined to use the general you, but I can honestly say "one" isn't ONE I use ;-)

  • At 10:31 AM , Blogger Dawn Wilson said...

    Hi, Colby. Thanks for commenting. :) I have to agree, "one" definitely sounds formal. It almost sounds kinda snobbish. But, in a way, almost educated, as though the speaker has learned by now the hazards of using "you" and figured that using "one" is the better way to go.


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