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"One" Versus "You"

The fine line between formality and stuffiness.

By
Bonnie Mills, read by Mignon Fogarty,
April 3, 2009
Episode #164

 

Today's topic is “one” versus “you.” Bonnie Trenga is going to help us determine the best way to talk in general terms about the average person.

Bonnie says,

If you want to talk about people in general, should you say, “It isn’t good for one to be late all the time,” or “It isn’t good for you to be late all the time”? One who regularly listens to this show does tend to wonder about these things. Yes, it would be logical for you to wonder.

The short answer is that either way is grammatical and acceptable in American English. Both pronouns—“one” and “you”—are what can be called indefinite, impersonal, or generic pronouns (1). But as will be revealed soon, one of these pronouns is more formal than the other, and if you use it too much, you might run the risk of coming across as haughty.

The Pronoun “One”

This segment of the show is going to sound rather formal because we’re going to explain how to use the pronoun “one,” which is much more formal than the pronoun “you.” One uses the pronoun “one” as an impersonal pronoun that stands for the average person or the sort of person one happens to be concerned with: someone in the same class as the speaker, for example (2). When one uses this pronoun, one creates a sense of social superiority. One can imagine high-class snobs saying to one another, “One wouldn’t want to go to that restaurant because then one would have to mix with the riff-raff.” It's not the friendliest way of speaking.

The pronoun “one” also comes with a possessive form—“one’s”—and a reflexive form—“oneself.” One could in clear conscience say or write, “One should be careful around one’s stove to avoid burning oneself,” but then one might sound ridiculous if one said or wrote that. Or one might even be considered “bookish and pedantic” (3). Despite the drawbacks of the pronoun “one,” one may occasionally find oneself using it as a substitute for “I” (4) or for being ironic.

The Pronoun “You”you

This brings us to the pronoun “you,” which you’ll soon see gives off a much more relaxed air and sounds much more natural than the pronoun “one.” “You” is the pronoun you should choose most often, assuming you’re not aiming to look down on everyone else. Each time you tune in to this and other Quick and Dirty Tips podcasts, you’ll probably hear the podcaster using the pronoun “you” to mean the average person or listener.

Caveats

When it comes to the object case, there’s no rule that “one” is not allowed, but one guide (5) does recommend that you avoid using “one” as an object because it sounds quite bizarre. Even the strictest grammarian who wished to be formal would balk at this sentence: “When the waiter passes out crumpets to one, one should always thank him.” The “to one” part of the sentence certainly does sound strange.

[[AdMiddle]Another problem that may come up when one uses “one” is that one tends to mix pronouns. One would want to avoid a sentence like “While one is reading, he should always wear his glasses.” That used to be more acceptable, but now that society is more sensitive about gender bias, mixing pronouns, especially in the same sentence, is not advisable (6). You should use generic pronouns consistently throughout.

That solution to the gender-bias problem leads to another possible problem. When you’re speaking or writing more than a few sentences that address the average person, you don’t want to overuse the pronoun “you” (or “one” if you are being super-formal). Your sentences will become monotonous if you use the same pronoun two or three times per sentence for paragraph upon paragraph.

You may find yourself wanting to use passive voice in an effort to avoid overusing the same pronoun. For example, instead of writing “You should bring your books back to your desk,” you could get rid of one “you” by writing, “Your books should be brought back to your desk.” That might be a good strategy to use occasionally to add variety, but paragraph upon paragraph of passive writing won't endear you to your audience. It’s best to use active voice most of the time, so if you’re faced with the problem of monotonous generic pronouns, you’ll have to be creative and come up with other ways to vary your sentence structure.

Summary

So, to sum up, although it’s grammatically acceptable to use “one” as a generic pronoun, you’ll probably want to stick with “you” most of the time. You’ll have to be the judge for your particular sentence. Or if I wanted to sound formal, I’d say, one will have to be the judge of that for oneself.

The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier

This podcast was written by Bonnie Trenga, author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier, who blogs at sentencesleuth.blogspot.com, and I'm Mignon Fogarty, the author of the paperback book Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

References

1. Burchfield, R. W, ed. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Third edition. New York: Oxford, 1996, pp. 550-51.
2. Burchfield, R. W, ed. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Third edition. New York: Oxford, 1996, pp. 550-51.
3. Burchfield, R. W, ed. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Third edition. New York: Oxford, 1996, pp. 550-51.
4. Garner, B. Garner's Modern English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2003, p. 571.
5. American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, pp. 330-31.
6. Burchfield, R. W, ed. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Third edition. New York: Oxford, 1996, pp. 550-51.

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