As a teacher who has been in the classroom for over 20 years, I can unequivocally admit that I urge my composition students to avoid the pronoun you in almost 100% of their writing.
Although some people feel that limiting the use of you in formal writing is unjustified, the pronoun is considered informal and creates a tone of insult. I have also found that once a student begins to use you within their writing, they also begin to overuse it and struggle with rhetoric, thus leaving their audience with an unfocused message.
The use of you creates assumptions about who you are directing your message towards. To create a clear and concise message, avoid using you.
The Pronoun You
You is a second-person personal pronoun that serves as both a singular and plural subject or object pronoun. It is used to address someone directly in speech and writing.
- Did you stop by the store on the way home?
- You won’t be eligible for loan forgiveness unless you complete the application and turn it in on time.
- I am curious to know your opinion about the movie he dedicated to you.
Because you is used to indicate the audience to whom you are speaking (or writing), it infers the listener(s) are aware of the context of the message. You is commonly used in speech and writing when the author is directing their comments to a known audience.
For example, you is used when written directions are given because the reader is looking for information to follow.
This type of writing and speech is usually informal since something is already known about the audience—creating a more personal tone. Formal speech and writing are towards a more general audience, and assumptions about their knowledge shouldn’t be made—therefore, the pronoun you should be limited or avoided altogether.
What Defines Informal Writing?
Informal writing styles, as mentioned above, are often similar to a spoken conversation and include various figures of speech, slang, broken syntax, and even asides. It is more personal in nature and usually addresses the audience directly, hence the use of the pronoun you.
Informal writing also embraces a more emotional approach, using rhetoric that appeals to the senses rather than logic, and may even include incomplete sentence structures and an abundance of contractions.
What Defines Formal Writing?
Formal writing is directed to a broad, unknown audience and usually uses longer, more complete sentence structures compared to informal writing. Strong claims with explanations and conclusions are part of the overall writing approach, and an appeal to logic generally trumps emotional diction.
For the most part, it is not acceptable to use first or second-person pronouns within the writing structure to avoid a personal tone.
Did English Ever Have a Formal Version of You?
The English language used to have formal versions of the pronoun you. During the 12th century, the “thou” form of you was originally used as a sign of respect. “Thee,” “thou” and “thine” were nominative, objective and possessive cases, respectively, until the 14th century when they became associated with an address of inferiors as a sign of insult.
Their use fell away entirely by the 19th century to be replaced with the always present “you,” derived from Old English eow from even older Proto-Germanic influences that span back to 2500 BC.
How to Say You in a Formal Way
There is no modern use of the pronoun you in writing. In speech, it may be acceptable depending on the context and the scenario it is used in.
Wherever possible, avoid using you in the formal text unless you are certain of your audience and share a specific message.
You is a second-person personal pronoun used in both singular and plural forms. It is used to address someone directly in both speech and writing and should be avoided in almost all formal circumstances. You serves as both a singular and plural subject or object pronoun. It is used to address someone directly in speech and writing.