The Grammarphobia Blog

Are you the one?

Q: I’m bugged by the increasing use of “you” to mean “a person” or “one,” as in “You run into all types on the bus.” It’s even used for “I” to avoid accepting responsibility: “You don’t expect a car to pass you on the right.” In other words, anyone would have hit that car.

A: You’re right that “you” is often used as an indefinite personal pronoun meaning “a person” or “one.”

But we’re not sure that this usage is more common now than in the past. You may simply be noticing it more because it bugs you.

As it turns out, the usage has been around for hundreds of years and it’s perfectly acceptable grammatically. Here’s a little history.

The Oxford English Dictionary has citations beginning in the 16th century for the use of “you” to denote “any hearer or reader; hence as an indef. pers. pron.: One, any one.”

The OED’s earliest citation comes from Barnaby Googe’s 1577 translation of Foure Bookes of Husbandry, a Latin treatise on farming: “You shall sometime have one branch more gallant than his fellowes.”

Here’s another citation, from Gulliver’s Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift: “A child … began a squall that you might have heard from London Bridge to Chelsea.”

And here’s one from John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies: Two Lectures (1865): “You can talk a mob into anything.”

The use of “one” for this purpose (that is, in reference to an unidentified someone, or a person in general) sounds rather formal to the average American.

The OED says “one” is used this way in two difference senses.

In the first sense, “one” is used to mean a person in general—that is, anyone.

This is how the British writer Nancy Mitford used it in her novel Highland Fling (1931): “One is not exactly encouraged to use one’s brain over here, you know.”

In the second sense, “one” is used to refer to the speaker alone (like “I”).

A good example is this conversation from Eileen H. Clements’s novel High Tension (1959): “ ‘Do you often have your fan-mail in person?’ … ‘Not often. One isn’t in the telephone book.’ ”

Another example comes from Frank Johnson’s Out of Order (1982), a collection of political sketches: “How to persuade the Telegraph that … one was a man of immense culture? (Saying ‘one’ when you mean ‘I’ would do for a start, I decided.)”

As the OED notes, this latter usage is “associated esp. with British upper-class speech, and now freq. regarded as affected.”

You’re right in suggesting that speakers sometimes use “you” (or “one”) in place of “I” to avoid taking responsibility.

Here are a couple of examples:

“How are you supposed to know when a gun is loaded?”

“One didn’t realize the safety was off, now did one?”

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