As any driver knows, when you change lanes, you’re supposed to signal your intention to do so in order to warn drivers behind you. This helps to prevent accidents. Do you signal your intentions when you use we versus you?
I’ve noticed that speakers and writers often change lanes in terms of saying “I,” “you,” and “they” without warning.
This is one of those red flags of amateurish writing. Once you choose a point of view, maintain it until you signal that you are going to change it.
An Example of We Versus You
“We think about how to write well and quickly. Confusion over grammar can stop you. You slow down when you stop to check. I don’t always do this, though, and this means that you have to do a lot of proofreading and correcting.”
You might be thinking that no one would make so many mistakes in such a short time, but I’ve seen it.
Here’s how I would change the paragraph. It still needs some help, but I’m focused on the pronouns of we versus you.
“I think about how to write well and quickly. Confusion over grammar can stop me. I slow down when I stop to check. I don’t always do this, though, and this means that I have to do a lot of proofreading and correcting.”
If you’re writing non-fiction, you can change your point of view in the next paragraph. You might write, “You, as a beginning writer, want to learn how to write in a polished way. To do this, you can study good writing, read books on grammar, and think carefully about your own writing.”
In the above paragraph, the writer is making it clear that he or she is addressing the reader of the book or article. Concise writing gets to the point.
“You” Is a Sneaky Pronoun
The English language suffers from unclear pronouns. French, for example, has both a plural and single equivalent to “you.” The language also uses “one,” as in “One needs to justify one’s behavior.”
American English speakers often find the use of “one” to be excessively formal. We tend to use “you” instead. This, unfortunately, can sound too informal, personal, and also incorrect.
Consider, though, how the sentence sounds when “you” replaces “one.”
“You need to justify your behavior.”
Does it surprise you that some people might be offended and get defensive when they read that sentence?
Given that “one” is unlikely to be widely accepted as a replacement for “you,” I recommend avoiding this problem altogether.
I would write either, “People need to justify their behavior” or “We need to justify our behavior.” Both usages are general enough not to give offense.
More “You” Mis-usages
In the following sentence “you” is the villain.
“When Henry came into the room, you could see people glance at each other.”
Who could see this? If you are writing in first-person format (“I”), replace “you” with “I.” This makes it clear that you saw it. It also sounds much more accurate as a first-person report.
Here’s another example
“If we had universal health care, you would not see so many unnecessary deaths.”
“You” should change to “we.”
Point of view, as expressed through pronouns, is very important. As readers, we want to know who’s expressing an opinion or describing a reaction.
Always remember this point: Confused readers stop reading. You, and I do mean you, don’t want that to happen. Be sure to take the time to edit your work to look for instances when you switched from we versus you.
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Pat Iyer is an editor, author, book coach and ghostwriter who helps individuals create books that encourages their expertise to shine and advances their businesses. She has written or edited 48 of her own books.