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What You Need to Know About You Posted by on Nov 10, 2017 in English Grammar

You is one of the most frequently-used words in our language, but everything about it can seem bewilderingly complex.

Photo by Thomas Rousing on Flickr under CC BY 2.0

Any native speaker of English understands that the personal pronoun you can be either singular or plural, and a subject or an object of a sentence. Unfortunately, to distinguish which usage is intended, it is imperative to understand the context of the sentence. This is not always easy, however, for non-native speakers. One of the very first things that learners are confronted with is this odd aspect of our language. And, on behalf of native English speakers everywhere, I am so sorry.

As you probably know, there are only a few pronouns that can be the subject of a sentence – I, we, you, he, she, it, and they. Likewise, only certain pronouns can be used as objects in a sentence (whether as direct objects, indirect objects, or objects of prepositions) – me, us, you, him, her, it, and them. The second person singular subjective and objective, and its plural counterpart, are the same word – you.

Consider this sentence: “You need to go to school.”

Is the subject of that sentence plural or singular? In fact, without context, there is no feasible way to know. That sentence could come from a parent to a child, or from an adult speaking to a roomful of children. Not only is it both plural and singular, it is also both formal and informal. You could say that it is a wholly democratic pronoun, servicing all needs. Or, you could say that it is one more example of why English is a crazy language.

It may interest you to know that this was not always the case. In French and other Romance languages, we have what is known as the t-v distinction, from the French second person pronouns tu and vous, which allow for a formal distinction to the plural use of the pronoun. English once also had this same distinction: thou and ye. Thou was the second person informal singular, and ye was the second person formal plural. With the Norman conquest, and French influence, thou took on an implied meaning of over-familiarity, or even disrespect; while another pronoun, you, which was the objective form of ye, was often used for formal circumstances.

“Thou must not steal!”

“Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free!”

Between the 17th and late 19th century, these more archaic versions of the same pronoun were supplanted by you. Why? There are several theories, but the one which is given the most weight is that the printing press is to blame.

English once had a letter called thorn (þ), which was used to represent the th sound. As it was written by scribes in the Middle Ages its shape became less distinctive, and a certain sense of laziness took over the language. After all, these pronouns appear in our language all the time! Thou came to be abbreviated as a single letter, a thorn with a “u” placed over it (þͧ). With the arrival of the printing press to the shores of Great Britain, there was no existing version of the thorn. But, it did look like the letter y, which was already in the printing press! Remove the th, replace it with a y, and what do you get when you spell it?

Thou became you. But, hold on, that word already existed as the objective case of ye. The best and simplest solution was to roll them all into one pronoun covering the second person singular subjective and objective case and the second person plural subjective and objective case! Easy-peasy, case closed, time for lunch.

Well, assuming you understand the context in which the pronoun is being used.

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  1. Eduardo:

    Thank you for let me know about this tricky word. I enjoyed your note a lot.