In spoken communication, shifts in person and number of pronouns (I to you, they to he) often occur. If you listen closely to television news anchors, you'll detect shifts in pronouns quite often: "Every woman on the panel wanted to tell their own story." Shifts also occur in written communication: "Citizens who protest the building of a water treatment plant near people's homes should remember you all benefit from cleaner water."
Correct ways to write the two examples above:
Every woman on the panel wanted to tell her own story.
Citizens who protest the building of a water treatment plant near people's homes should remember they all benefit from cleaner water.
As a writer, you need to check your work and edit out any shifts in pronouns which confuse the reader. Eliminate the informal, generic you. Use you only to mean "you, the reader." The second person works well when giving advice or explaining how to do something. Two examples are this handout or a process paper.
The following sentences show some faulty uses of you:
- Sailing to Japan, you had to worry about typhoons.
(Your reader wasn't there.)
BUT: Sailing to Japan, travelers had to worry about typhoons.
- I go to the seashore every year, and you would really love it.
(Reader may hate water! Don't dictate to your readers by telling them what they would or would not like.)
BUT: I go to the seashore every year, and I really love it.
When you eliminate the generalized "you" in your writing, you are avoiding one of the most common errors in pronoun usage: shifting to "you" after identifying the person involved.
Note the following examples:
WRONG: Hildene doesn't want to be a famous actor because people always know what you're doing.
CORRECT: Hildene doesn't want to be a famous actor because people always know what she's doing.
WRONG: When offered criticism by a teacher, a student should be able to explain yourself.
CORRECT: When offered criticism by a teacher, a student should be able to explain themselves (or herself or himself).
Finally, remember to be consistent in pronoun usage throughout your paper. Keep in mind whether you are writing about one person or many:
I, person, one, everyone
they, she, he, it, anyone, each one,
everybody, no one, nobody, someone, somebody
we, they, people, persons
Are you writing about an incident in which you participated or one based on personal experience? Use first person:
Singular = I
Plural = we
Are you writing about other people's lives, telling a story about others, or doing expository writing in general? Use third person:
Singular = they, she, he, it
Plural = they
Whichever pronoun you choose, stick with it.