June 8, 2020 Tips from our Newsletter, All, English Grammar
This week we wanted to cover a topic that can be a little tricky. It’s called “the impersonal you”. The ‘impersonal you’ can be applicable to something as basic and everyday as an email between colleagues, or even friends. For this reason, it’s important to know when to use or not use it.
Generally, how formal you want to speak or write dictates whether or not you’ll want to use the impersonal you. Let’s explain!
The impersonal you refers to the use of the word “you” used in writing as a generalization for anyone in particular. It is considered a casual style of writing. For example, if someone writes the instructions for a recipe in a magazine, the impersonal you can be used like this:
“When your batter is well mixed, you can then pour it into your baking pan, and put it in the oven. You should bake it for 30 minutes.”
The magazine article isn’t addressed to anyone in particular, but the word “you” is used in a general way to explain to any individual how the recipe should be followed.
The alternative would be the following:
“When one’s batter is well mixed, one can then pour it into one’s baking pan, and put it in the oven. One should bake it for 30 minutes.”
No native speaker talks like this regularly, nor do we write like this except in the most formal situations.
Here’s the general rule regarding the impersonal you: If your writing is very formal and the use of the word “you” would make your writing sound too casual, the use of the word “one” should be used in place of “you”. This may be the case in a research paper, for example. Otherwise, just use “you”!
Okay, that was a lot of information so let’s give you guys some examples!
Let’s say you are writing a research paper. The following examples show the use of the impersonal “you” and the word “one” in the context of this topic.
Example 1: If you were to visit the rainforests of South America and to count the number of species of trees there, you would be impressed by the number of species you had never seen before.
Example 2: If one were to visit the rainforests of South America and to count the number of species of trees there, one would be impressed by the number of species he/she had never seen before.
The two sentences both cover the same topic are almost exactly alike. Example 1 uses the impersonal you and example 2 uses the word “one”. By swapping out “you” with “one” the writing becomes more formal. The context of this writing sample, the fact that it’s a research paper, tells us we should use “one” here, because this is a formal piece of writing.
Okay, here is another example:
Let’s say a doctor is giving advice to a patient via email.
“The sun is an excellent source of vitamin D for your bones. However, you should always wear sunscreen when exposed to the sun. Keep in mind, the sun releases UVA and UVB radiation that will prove to be damaging to your skin.”
“The sun is an excellent source of vitamin D for one’s bones. However, one should always wear sunscreen when exposed to the sun. Keep in mind, the sun releases UVA and UVB radiation that will prove to be damaging to one’s skin.”
While both examples are grammatically correct (there’s no technically “wrong” answer in this topic!), your doctor is much more likely to use the first paragraph. It sounds more natural and conversational.
Let’s do one more:
Talking to a friend while in the car:
“You shouldn’t go too fast here, there are always police on this road.”
“One shouldn’t go too fast here, there are always police on this road.”
‘You’ definitely sounds better here–even though it’s not just your friend that shouldn’t go too fast. That advice applies to everyone!
Remember, think about whether or not your writing needs to be extra formal. Sometimes in written documents it can be ok to mix ‘you’ and ‘one’ (in different sentences of course), just to add variety and to avoid boring your readers!
We hope that our tips and examples help for when you’re using the impersonal you! Did you catch our use of the impersonal you in this post?
Have questions on this post? Let us know in the comments.