Nuance: A series to help English language learners explore the subtleties of English

The FOUR Meanings of the Word YOU

This series is called Nuance and it looks at subtleties of the English language that even advanced learners of English might miss.

One of these subtleties is the various uses of the word YOU. Did you know this word has four meanings? And it’s the third meaning that causes the most confusion!

Meaning number one: second person singular

This is the most common meaning! It addresses the person who we are speaking directly to.

For example: Jack, where are you going?

Meaning number two: second person plural

This meaning is also quite straightforward. It’s just like number one, but we are addressing a group of people.

For example: Class, you must complete your homework on time.

Many languages have different words for meaning number one and two. In fact, hundreds of years ago, English also had different words (thee, thou and ye). Now, there’s just one.

Some languages also have a formal and informal way to say “you”, such as vous and tu in French. In modern English, there is no such thing.

Meaning number three: the generic you

Now, we’ve come to meaning number three, the “generic you”. This is the one that causes a lot of confusion.

The generic you means something like “anybody”. Although it is rarely mentioned in grammar books, it is actually extremely common. Let’s see an example:

Example: You need eggs to make a cake.

The “you” in this sentence is not the person being spoken to – it means “anyone”. Anyone needs eggs to make a cake.

Here is another example:

Student: How do you spell LIAISE?
Teacher: You spell it L-I-A-I-S-E.

The student is not asking how the teacher spells the word. He is asking how “anybody” spells the word. This is reflected in the answer when the teacher uses the generic you again.

As a teacher, I have observed how the generic you can be difficult for students to use. They often ask me things like, “How to spell XXX?”

In writing, I see my students using WE instead of the generic you:

To make a cake, we should begin by selecting the correct recipe.

This is a correct sentence, but it is more natural to English to say:

To make a cake, YOU should begin by selecting the correct recipe.

Meaning number four: using YOU to mean ME?

You can mean ME or I?

Yes, this is the fourth meaning, “oneself”, but it is quite unusual and you are not likely to hear it often.

Consider the following dialog:

Billy: How are you holding up since Grandma passed away?
Grampa: Well, you do get lonely sometimes, but you persevere.

Grampa uses YOU to describe himself, possibly to distance himself from this sensitive or painful topic. It’s clear that this is not the third meaning, because Grampa is talking about something specific to himself.

We might express this using the word ONE instead:

Billy: How are you holding up since Grandma passed away?
Grampa: Well, one does get lonely sometimes, but one perseveres.

Remember, this fourth meaning is not very common. You might come across it from time to time, especially in old novels.

So there we have it, the four meanings of the word YOU. I hope this has changed the way you look at this simple word.