Did you know that the word, ‘you’ has at least four meanings?
1 The first use is of ‘you’ as the second person singular:
Jack, where are you going?
We are talking to Jack and you refers to Jack. Hundreds of years ago, English speakers used the word, ‘thou’ as the second person singular and distinguished it from the second person plural, but this was lost in time.
2 The second use of you is the second person plural.
Class, you must complete your homework on time.
We are talking directly to a group of people and we refer to them by you (and your).
3 Next, we have something called the ‘generic you’. Although this is rarely mentioned in grammar books, it is extremely common. The generic you means ‘anyone’:
You can’t make a cake without eggs.
A more formal way of saying this is to use ‘one’:
One can’t make a cake without eggs.
In fact, this is called the ‘generic one’.
English learners first come across the generic you when they learn basic classroom language:
How do you spell that?
How do you pronounce that?
Perhaps that accounts for the common mistake:
How to spell that?
Learners feel that ‘you’ does not make sense, so they substitute it with ‘to’. But the reason it does not seem to make sense is that they have not yet learned the ‘generic you’. Of course, even advanced level students and teachers may not be aware of the generic you.
4 The final use of you is to talk about oneself. Consider this exchange:
Billy: How are you holding up since Linda passed away?
Grampa: Well, you do get lonely sometimes, but I will persevere.
Notice the use of you to distance the speaker from a sensitive topic. Once again, we could use ‘one’ in its place or we could just say ‘I’:
Well, one does get lonely sometimes, but I will persevere.
Well, I do get lonely sometimes, but I will persevere.
This last usage is the least common.
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