You, me and everybody

If — as I’m doing now — you tend to address your readers as ‘you’, and yourself as ‘I’, the trick is to remain consistent, and not switch arbitrarily to another pronoun, nor bring in so many characters that the reader becomes confused.

That’s not to say we (look, there’s another!) can’t bring in a whole cast of pronouns when it suits us. Here, first, is my recap on who’s who and what they do. Most of it’s pretty obvious, but I reckon it can’t hurt.

I, me: ‘I identify as the narrator, the voice behind the opinions expressed here.’ When you identify as ‘I’, you lay claim to the originality of your ideas, but you also bear responsibility for them. (There’s nowhere to hide.) ‘You’ and ‘I’ is fine for run-of-the-mill prose; more academic writing tends to shy away from ‘I’ in favour of depersonalising the discourse, although some authors will refer to themselves coyly as ‘the author’. [Referring to yourself in the third person, by the way, is called illeism, from the Latin ille, ‘that person’. Julius Caesar often used this device when giving an account of his deeds, in the hope of fostering the illusion of impartiality.]

You: ‘You are my reader, my intended audience.’ This very direct form of address has the advantage of engaging the reader and making them feel as though you’re speaking to them personally, but you need to take care not to sound as though you’re accusing them of some misdeed.

We: ‘We is either the author and reader, but more usually is a broader collective “we” representing people in general.’ The great advantage of ‘we’ is that it’s inclusive: admitting your readers into a kinship can make them feel supported and comforted. It avoids the accusatory vibe, while still enabling you to slip in some hard truths. (‘We all could use some practice at this.’)

They: ‘They is a person or persons other than the writer and the reader,’ unless  you’re being some weird kind of illeist (see above). Adding a third-party dynamic not only can be useful in practical terms, but also allows you to characterize, subtly or otherwise, different subsets of your readership. ‘They don’t love you as I do,’ and so on.

One: For use only by comedians and stodgy Poms.

Okay, back to that non-gendered pronoun. In its more traditional usage, in place of a messy ‘she/he’, it invites even messier switches from singular to plural: ‘When someone wears a ballgown by Balenciaga, they enter a world of feminine mystique.’ I’ll sometimes rewrite to avoid this construction. When ‘they’ serves as a pronoun for individuals who identify as neither ‘he/him’ nor ‘she/her’, it adds no grammatical problems.

There’s nothing to stop you using all the pronouns in a piece of writing, so long as you don’t confuse them. The more you add, the more care is required in ascribing actions or points of view to the different players.

I don’t know about you, but I hate it when couples argue publicly, like in the supermarket or the pub? Are they totally shameless? Surely we own the right to buy our groceries or enjoy a drink in peace.

On a final note on pronouns, take care not to confuse subject (e.g., ‘I’) and object (‘me’). ‘She loves you more than I’ does not mean the same as ‘She loves you more than me’. Similarly, the title of this post, which quotes Elton John – ‘You, me and everybody got a part-time love’ – is a classic example of songwriters abusing grammar and getting away with it; still, at the end of the day, Bernie Taupin is a millionaire and I’m not.

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