Taking your pick of personal pronouns

A topic of conversation that always remains hotly contested among writers is how to refer to an unspecified person. We do this quite naturally in spoken English, but when writing, the choices of personal pronouns at our disposal mean that we sometimes spend longer than we should pondering which ones will help us achieve the tone we’re looking for.

Personal pronouns are the short words we use so that we don’t have to keep saying a person’s name. For example, if Joe Bloggs is talking about what he’s doing, he doesn’t need to say “Joe Bloggs is in the kitchen. Now Joe Bloggs is going to work. Later today, Joe Bloggs will be going to the cinema.” The personal pronoun ‘I’ means he doesn’t have to refer to himself in the third person.

That’s a very obvious example of how clumsy and ridiculous speech or writing could be without personal pronouns, but there are occasions where choice of pronoun can be much less clear cut.

One example of this is with the second person pronoun ‘you’, which always keeps writers in debate. Much discussion is given as to what extent writing should be directly addressing its reader.

In news writing, unless the style is very informal, using ‘you’ is generally frowned upon. News reporters should avoid editorialising and giving opinion, so phrases like ‘as you will know’ and ‘you would think that…’ deviate from traditional news style, making assumptions of their readers’ knowledge and thoughts.

An alternative to ‘you’ is ‘one’, as in ‘one can do this’, but using this term instead of ‘you’ instantly makes writing seem highly formal. It has connotations of royalty, even, leaving writers fearful that they will come across as stuffy or overly impersonal by using it. German has the word ‘man’, which is used in the same was as ‘one’ but has nothing like the same register, meaning it is often used in casual conversation, but we have no such informal equivalent in English.

One way writers can get around the you/one issue is to rephrase their writing. Instead of ‘you can find out more on the website’, suitable alternatives can be ‘those looking for more information can visit the website’ or simply ‘more information is available on the website’.

Something that causes arguably even more ructions among writers is using ‘they’ to refer to an individual person.

‘They’ is usually used as a pronoun to refer to two or more people at once, but there are occasions when it seems more suitable to refer to just one person as ‘they’. The singular personal pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’ assume gender, while ‘it’ can seem nonhuman. A lot of parents-to-be who chose to find out the sex of their unborn child say that they feel relief at being able to assign a ‘he’ or ‘she’ to the baby rather than an ‘it’.

There are people who argue that rather than ‘everyone should remember to bring their passport to the airport’, we should say ‘everyone should remember to bring his or her passport to the airport’. Personally, I feel the latter option is unnecessary. Aside from the fact that it’s a little awkward, it assumes a mixed gender involvement. What if everyone turning up at the airport is male or female?

It should also be considered that there are people who reject the idea of themselves being male or female. Non-binary or genderqueer people often prefer to be referred to as ‘they’.

All in all, there are very few definite dos and don’ts in written person pronoun usage, and perhaps the best advice is for writers to simply be confident and consistent in how they use them.

If you (or should I say ‘one’? No, I’ll stick with ‘you’!) would like to learn more top tips on how to become a comfortable and accomplished writer, our Freelance Writing for Businesses and Business Blogging for Beginners courses are currently available at discounted prices.

John Murray

Content Team Leader at Engage Web

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