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Second Person

The Second Person

A couple of decades ago, no writer for the general public would dream of addressing the reader directly by using the second person. The approach would have been considered much too forward.

A student of historical English, however, would know that this attitude was a recent and surprising development, because "you" was previously a very formal term. The informal second person was "thee". These two words were analogous to the "vous" and "tu" of French, which are not just plural and singular, but also "formal" and "informal", respectively. You can still sometimes see the informal "thee", typically in religious contexts: for example, in the speech of some Quakers to family members, and in formal prayers written in English, where a very personal and intimate relationship with the deity is being expressed.

In recent years, the prohibition on directly addressing the reader has turned 180 degrees. The turnaround has been effected chiefly by the need, in technical writing, to convey procedural information in a conversational style (rather than by using the imperative mood, which is not always appropriate) and by the need to avoid the style and gender-bias issues raised by the third person singular. Addressing the reader as "you" is accepted as the preferable style in most material of this sort.

But how far should writers carry direct address? If "you" rankles, it is entirely possible to write material that directly addresses the reader with nary a "you" in sight. Take this tip, for instance. In fact, take all of the tips in the past twelve months. Every one was written in a conversational style, and yet they rarely or never speak to "you" directly.

While the use of the second person has become a legitimate tool in the creation of procedural information, the possessive "your" is best avoided:

    If you start your computer and your screen is blank, try....

In the preceding example, the repeated "your" is entirely unnecessary. Indeed, maybe the reader is trying to start a colleague's computer. Better to replace each "your" with the definite article "the".

An exception occurs when a clear need exists to identify an object as belonging exclusively to the reader. Consider:

    The printer window shows all files currently awaiting printing. At this window, you can delete your pending print jobs.

The second sentence emphasizes that "you" can delete your jobs (and presumably not those belonging to others).

Notice that, if used once unnecessarily, "your" begs to be repeated thereafter. The resulting repetition gives a text a kindergarten feel. ("Now, you are going to take your knapsack and hang it in your cubby...." Get the picture?)

So, don't be afraid to talk to your readers—but try not to patronize them!