Posts Tagged ‘proper use of you’

Some writers are unsure about whether it’s “legal” to use the word you in their writing.

It’s fine — under certain circumstances.

When using the word you in a document, you should be referring to everyone who reads the document. Instructional documents like this blog use you because the material addresses everyone reading them.

Using you in how-to documents also makes writing simpler by eliminating problems with consistency in number or person or gender.

However, some people claim that writers should avoid you at all costs, saying that even in instructional documents, you is wrong:

First, you need to turn off the copier.

First, turn off the copier.

Actually, using you in the above example isn’t a grammar violation. But the second version is more concise, so eliminating you was a matter of style.

Also, directly addressing the audience automatically makes the writing less formal, so avoid the practice in formal situations.

In addition, you can be unnecessary or inaccurate. This is another of those areas — like using they instead of he or she — where people usually use incorrect wording, so the wrong way sounds right. For example, many people would write something like this:

I walked into the conference room and tried to put everyone at ease. But you could tell it was going to be a tense meeting by the way everyone avoided eye contact.

There’s no reason to shift to you as the person in the story. The readers of the story weren’t at the meeting. The correct thing to say is this:

I could tell it was going to be a tense meeting by the way everyone was avoiding eye contact.

However, using you has become a common way to say “anyone who would have been there would have experienced the same thing I did.” This is fine in casual conversation and informal e-mails. In fact, it is the dominant way this idea is expressed. But in formal documents, don’t use you unless it’s appropriate.

Next time: Grammar FAQ

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