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Encyclopedia > Generic you
English grammar series

English grammar The English language is a West Germanic language that originates in England. ... Grammar is the study of rules governing the use of language. ... English grammar is a body of rules specifying how meanings are created in English. ...

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In English grammar, generic you or indefinite you is the use of the pronoun you to refer to an unspecified person. Generic one is the use of one in the same way. A case of disputed English grammar arises when there is disagreement about whether a given construction constitutes correct English. ... Verbs in the English language are a lexically and morphologically distinct part of speech which describes an action, an event, or a state. ... In English, verbs are conjugated for tense, aspect, mood, and voice, and in some cases to agree with their subjects in person and number. ... English has a large number of irregular verbs. ... In the English language, a modal auxiliary verb is an auxiliary verb (or helping verb) that can modify the grammatical mood (or mode) of a verb. ... In English as in many other languages, the passive voice is the form of a transitive verb whose grammatical subject serves as the patient, receiving the action of the verb. ... The English language once had an extensive declension system similar to modern German or Icelandic. ... The English personal pronouns are classified as follows: First person refers to the speaker(s). ... Note: This page or section contains IPA phonetic symbols in Unicode. ... A compound is a word composed of more than one free morphemes. ... An honorific is something that is attached to the name but is not normally used elsewhere, e. ... This article is focused mainly on usage of English relative clauses. ... English grammar is a body of rules specifying how meanings are created in English. ... In linguistics and grammar, a pronoun is a pro-form that substitutes for a noun phrase. ... Look up you in Wiktionary, the free dictionary. ... Placeholder names are words that refer to objects or people whose names are either irrelevant or unknown in the context which it is being discussed. ...


In casual English, the second person pronoun you often takes on the additional role of a generic pronoun. In more formal speech, the pronoun "one" serves this function; but as a pronoun (notably not when it signifies the number 1), it is felt to be somewhat awkward, and is infrequently used outside the most formal styles. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the use of this word as a pronoun in English was influenced by French on, which is not a number, but a reduced form of homme, "human being, person". Its most common use is to represent the sense "I and other people", as in Jane Austen's: The English language is a West Germanic language that originates in England. ... Grammatical person, in linguistics, is used for the grammatical categories a language uses to describe the relationship between the speaker and the persons or things she is talking about. ... The generic mood, in linguistics, is a mood used to make generalized comments about a class of thing. ... Look up one in Wiktionary, the free dictionary. ... The Oxford English Dictionary print set The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is a dictionary published by the Oxford University Press (OUP), and is generally regarded as the most comprehensive and scholarly dictionary of the English language. ... The introduction to this article provides insufficient context for those unfamiliar with the subject matter. ...

I do not think him so very ill-looking as I did — at least one sees many worse.
Mansfield Park (1814)

In some works of fiction, especially those written in second-person narrative, generic one is used to contrast with the you who refers to the narrating character specifically: Mansfield Park book cover Mansfield Park is a novel by Jane Austen. ... 1814 was a common year starting on Saturday (see link for calendar). ... Second-person narration is a narrative technique in which the protagonist or another main character is referred to by employment of second-person personal pronouns and other kinds of addressing forms, e. ...

As long as one is at one's desk by ten-thirty, one is relatively safe. Somehow you manage to miss this banker's deadline at least once a week.
Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City (1984)

It is much less common (even in other formal situations) when used in giving directions to the reader[citation needed], as it seems especially remote and stuffy. The genitive case is especially awkward: One should always wash one's hands. In more idiomatic speech, this would be rendered as You should always wash your hands. The imperfect domestication of generic one has caused respected writers to lose track of grammatical agreement, producing constructions such as one … they: Jay McInerney (born in 1955 in Hartford, Connecticut and christened John Barrett McInerney, Jr. ... 1984 (MCMLXXXIV) was a leap year starting on Sunday of the Gregorian calendar. ... It has been suggested that this article or section be merged with Possessive case. ...

… in a nasty Scottish jail, where one cannot even get the dirt brushed off their clothes.
Sir Walter Scott

one … he: For the first Premier of Saskatchewan see Thomas Walter Scott Sir Walter Scott (August 14, 1771 - September 21, 1832) was a prolific Scottish historical novelist and poet popular throughout Europe. ...

And one must be careful not to shoot himself.
Stuart Chase, in The Tyranny of Words

and one … you: Stuart Chase (1888-1985) was an American economist and engineer trained at MIT. His writings covered topics as diverse as General Semantics and physical economy. ...

When one is very old, as I am … your legs give in before your head does.
George Bernard Shaw

Generic you, by contrast, creates no such difficulties. Other circumlocutions are resorted to in English to avoid the awkwardness of generic one, such as resort to the passive voice. The idiomatic English translation of the French sentence Ici on parle français, literally, "here one speaks French" or "here someone speaks French", is "French is spoken here". Spanish, Portuguese and some other Romance languages resort to a reflexive verb in this context: se habla español/fala-se português, literally "Spanish/Portuguese speaks itself" but meaning "Spanish/Portuguese is spoken". Since the more recent traditions of linguistic prescription and usage commentary in English also discourage the passive voice, this too may draw criticism. George Bernard Shaw (George) Bernard Shaw[1] (born Dublin, 26 July 1856 – died 2 November 1950 in Hertfordshire) was an Irish playwright based in England. ... In grammar, voice is the relationship between the action or state expressed by a verb, and its arguments (subject, object, etc. ... The Romance languages, a major branch of the Indo-European language family, comprise all languages that descended from Latin, the language of the Roman Empire. ... In grammar, a reflexive verb is a verb whose semantic agent and patient (typically represented syntactically by the subject and the direct object) are the same. ... In linguistics, prescription is the laying down or prescribing of normative rules for the use of a language. ...


The phenomenon of generic you, though decried in the works of some still-read prescriptivist grammarians, is so widespread that it is nearly standard usage. The writer and usage commentator E. B. White wrote that: Image:Ebwhite2. ...

As for me, I try to avoid the impersonal one but have discovered that it is like a face you keep encountering in the streets and can't always avoid bowing to.

This is not the first case of a pronoun changing meaning, or acquiring an additional meaning, over time. The word you originally referred strictly to the second-person plural, being cognate with the German ihr and the French vous. When the second-person singular form thou was abandoned, you absorbed its functions. Look up Plural in Wiktionary, the free dictionary Plural is a grammatical number, typically referring to more than one of the referent in the real world. ... Cognate (Latin: cognatus co+gnatus, ie. ... For other uses, see Thou (disambiguation). ...


Note that you can be ambiguous; it is not always obvious whether the generic you or a semantically second-person you is meant. For example, in "you never know what John is thinking about", you could as easily refer to the audience as to people in general. Sometimes stress (linguistics) and intonation can help convey the difference; for example, generic you is generally unstressed, a stressed you generally refers to the audience. In linguistics, stress is the relative emphasis given to certain syllables in a word. ... Intonation is a term used to cover particular uses of tones in linguistics and music. ...


Reference

  • Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (E. Ward Gilman, ed.) Merriam-Webster, 1993. ISBN 0-87779-132-5

See also


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