“Fourth Person:” You, One, Y’All

In most English speaker’s everyday language, “you” can represent an indefinite referent. That is, when I say “you never can tell” I don’t mean that you, the specific person I’m talking to, never can tell, but rather that “somebody never can tell.” In written language, however, “one” is common in such situations; I pepper my writing with “one is struck by …” or “one cannot deduce …” I might also utter such phrases if I were speaking in a very formal, scripted situation, such as while delivering a lecture.

Using this type of “one” in spoken conversation, however, probably sounds vaguely “British” to many Americans. Maybe that’s unfair. (Although I delight at the notion of a stuffy genre of British sarcasm which depends upon the interchangeability of “one” and “you,” as in “one really must learn to be more polite, mustn’t one?”) Seriously, though, it would be interesting to see a comparison of the two Englishes in this regard.

But even in Britain, I’d guess that this type of “one” feels formal and old-fashioned in everyday conversation. It is striking, then, that we haven’t come up with a suitable alternative to “you,” since that word introduces a precarious element of ambiguity. “You’re always such a jerk after a bad night’s sleep” is perfectly polite if you mean “poor sleep patterns lead to grumpiness.” But this can easily be misinterpreted.

So back to the topic at hand: As with many pronominal gaps, one would expect (there it is!) certain dialects to fill it in. And yet I’ve found few varieties of English which do this. Linguist Tom Roeper makes an interesting, if passing, suggestion that y’all in some Southern dialects is used to disambiguate between the two types of second-person pronouns. Hence for such speakers, “y’all can’t do it” would mean “you (the person I’m talking to) can’t do it” while “you can’t do it” would mean “one can’t do it.” However, I haven’t found any corroborating evidence of this.

Can anything think of a variety of English that fills this gap?

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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14 Responses to “Fourth Person:” You, One, Y’All

  1. Luke says:

    In my experience, there is a lot of confusion with this. Other native speakers of English often seem to think I’m referring to them specifically when I’m using “you” as an indefinite referential. It would be nice to have a different word for that “you”.

  2. m.m. says:

    is that a pun in the last sentence? haha

    ive had an interesting conflict with this all my life. it really is seen as something contained mostly in formal speak, but for me, my base english for most of my formative years was of a formal academic variety, so i dropped “one”‘s without thinking twice of sounding formal/”snobby” for the longest time. only after lots of lect contact did i start to decrease the spoken usage because of the formal/snob indexicality. but it still gets used in written form for sure

    oddly, i dont make a connection to it with brEng. the old school teacher archetype on the other hand, one aught not make fun of such professons etc xD

  3. Mudge says:

    Unless something has changed since I lived in the region where it’s common, “Y’all” is used exclusively for a plural. That would make it of very limited use for distinguishing from “one”.

    • Texas Girl says:

      Exactly! “Y’all” is plural. That’s it. “You” is singular, and that’s how we use it. #TexasGirl

  4. Ed says:

    The use of the pronoun “one” is a stereotype of upper-class or pretentious speech, but I wonder if it was used by the working-classes in times gone by. In the Incidental material for the Survey of English Dialects, many of the sites have the note “pronoun one“.

  5. Charles Sullivan says:

    How about ‘ya’ as indefinite vs ‘you’ as definite. I’m making it up.

  6. The passive can be used in situations like this, when a specific pronoun isn’t needed or wanted. πŸ™‚

    An interesting aside: Bulgarian uses the 3rd person reflexive to resolve issues of indefinite referents. Razbira se! (understand-3rd person reflexive) means literally “it understands itself” but actually means “one/you understand” “it is understood” or “of course!”

  7. fmj says:

    I can remember at least one occasion when the use of “you” caused extreme embarrassment, and I still recall that occasion, 73 years ago, with a shudder of shame. I was a teenager then, and not accustomed to using “one,” but it sure would have been helpful, since I was trying to be reassuring and kind, and ended up being just the opposite.

  8. Mark P says:

    Mudge, that is my experience, too. Y’all or you all is used as a plural.

  9. Riona MacNamara says:

    It’s still very common in Irish English to differentiate between “you” and “ye” for the plural (our version of “y’all”).

  10. Harriette says:

    “Y’all” is plural – and is for everyone within hearing distance (wink). Walk into a more-than-one filled room and you’ll hear, “Hey, Y’all!” We certainly would never enter where only one person was present and say, “Hey, You!”….it would be “Hey!” or “Hey, [insert first name].”

    I continue to be [fondly] surprised at the curiosity of so many outside our geographical region of the South and the attentiveness they give us about our dialect and use of language. Confession: I, too, am intrigued by the variety of dialects that exist even within our own region – we can usually peg where a person is from after a sentence or two.

    Love this site!

  11. Rose Eneri says:

    I use “people” instead of “one” for a generalization. “People really must learn to be more polite. Mustn’t they?”

  12. Untrilled R says:

    Ill chuck in the Australian “Yous/Youse” filling a similar role.

    eg. “Where are youse going?”

    Not as widespread as Y’all, and not as commonly used, even amongst users of it. “You guys/fellas/blokes” are also used in similar ways, but the last two who be refering to males.