Grammar Lesson of the Day: The Indefinite You
You’d never believe how much time I spend with my college freshmen, unteaching them what they’ve been taught in high school. For instance, they tell me that you should never use the pronoun you in an indefinite sense, meaning someone or one. If you do, you’re a stylistic redneck.
“One must lift the tip of one’s nose to the cup, just so,” says Monsieur L’Hauteur, removing his pince-nez for the purpose, “and flare one’s nostrils so as to allow the bouquet of the wine to enter into one with the most effective effluvia.”
“Enter into one what?” says Bobby Joe.
The indefinite you is perfectly fine for most kinds of writing. Oh, not for the description of scientific experiments, I grant. “Well, first you drip this red stuff here into that there tube” – I don’t think that will do for a journal article. But for popular writing, and even for conversational writing admitting of a high intellectual tenor, the use is admissible and often preferable to the alternatives. It can beat the heck out of all those ones.
Just how useful is it, for informal or semiformal (suit and tie, no tuxedo) writing? You can get a fairly good idea by comparing English, in this regard, to other European languages. It’s unthinkable that you might say, in Spanish, “First you catch the train to Barcelona, then you hire a cab to the airport,” because, before you’d gotten to the train, you’d see your Spaniard cock his head in incomprehension, or furrow his brow in disdain; that’s because you don’t use tu or even vos when you’re speaking to somebody other than your good friend, your child, or your dog, which last creature would very likely not understand the instructions anyway. You have to use the impersonal with a reflexive pronoun, as in Italian: Primo si prende il treno a Barcelona, and so forth, in the third person. In German, you have to use the indefinite man, the unstressed form of the noun Mann, in the third person: Zuerst nimmt man den Zug nach Barcelona, dann, and so on, still in the third person, as if you were speaking of a Hypothetical Traveler, and not, indirectly, of the person to whom you are giving the instructions.
For all that, I’m beginning to feel a bit guilty, giving this advice. Most of the English that my students will encounter, outside of our literature classes, will be either flippantly and sloppily informal, or will be the vague turgid obfuscatory pseudo-scientific patois of the politician, the personnel manager, the sociologist, the lunatic, the lawyer, and the liar. I wish I could show them that we have more choices than bad and worse.