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I was discussing a certain road driving conditions with a friend. I said: You shouldn't be driving faster than 50 mph on that road!

I didn't mean him or anybody in particular. I meant anybody driving on that road.

His reaction was: why are you telling that to me? I never drive 50 mph on that road.

How can I explain him that he misunderstood me, without saying 'no, no, I didn't mean you'?

Assume that I am talking to an educated person.

  • 5
    It's often called the impersonal ‘you’. – Anton Sherwood Nov 30 '16 at 8:48
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    Note that there are two possible explanations for your friend's reaction. The first is that he thought you meant "You, personally, shouldn't drive at 50", which is what you think happened. He might also have understood that you meant "People in general shouldn't drive at 50" but he wondered why you were bothering to tell him that because he already knows it. – David Richerby Nov 30 '16 at 14:41
  • The problem with this "You" is that it has multiple meanings. If you want to convey a single meaning it's sometimes simpler to chose a word that isn't ambiguous. – Peter Nov 30 '16 at 17:54
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Yep. In the sentence that you mentioned, you is used as a generic pronoun.

In English grammar and in particular in casual English, generic you, impersonal you or indefinite you is the pronoun you in its use in referring to an unspecified person, as opposed to its use as the second person pronoun.

The generic you is primarily used as a colloquial or less formal substitute for one. For instance,

"Brushing one's teeth is healthy."

can be expressed less formally as

"Brushing your teeth is healthy."

Source: Wikipedia

This article explains more about the usage of generic you.

You could probably clear the misunderstanding by saying

I meant to say, "One shouldn't be driving faster than 50 mph on that road!"

  • 3
    But note that "one" sounds very formal. – David Richerby Nov 30 '16 at 14:39
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    And some trivia, "one" in the pronoun sense comes from the Norman French "on", and has nothing to do with the number 1. – Nicholas Shanks Nov 30 '16 at 17:19
  • @NicholasShanks Are you sure? "einer" in German cognates with "one" (usual meaning) in English, and has kinda same meaning as the pronoun. It may be a general (possibly historical) property of Germanic languages. – IllidanS4 Nov 30 '16 at 20:28
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    @IllidanS4: The german impersonal pronoun is "man" not "einer". – Thayne Nov 30 '16 at 20:38
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I agree with Aishwarya A R that 'you' is a generic pronoun, but part of the issue here may also be the use of the Present Perfect Continuous tense, because it is used to show that something started in the past and has continued up until now. In other words it is more specific in its timeline (now) and can therefore seem more accusatory.

Simple Present on the other hand, can be used to express the idea that an action is repeated or usual, and is therefore less specific in its timeframe (it's not necessarily referring to now, at this very moment in time.)

You shouldn't be driving faster than 50 mph on that road!

You shouldn't drive faster than 50 mph on that road.

This is of course, somewhat open to interpretation, but to me at least, the difference between the two sentences might be subtle, but it is significant.

  • Ah! That's a nice observation. – Aishwarya A R Nov 30 '16 at 4:41
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    "You shouldn't drive faster than 50 mph on that road." - "OK, I won't." That still isn't quite interpreted as it was intended. – Masked Man Nov 30 '16 at 7:02
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    Maybe not, but the point is that it provides a lot more latitude for it to be interpreted as intended. "You shouldn't be...." on the other hand is quite direct, and easily interpreted as accusatory, regardless of intent. Of course, "People shouldn't drive faster than 50 mph on that road" would remove all ambiguity. – mike Nov 30 '16 at 7:31
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    What about "Nobody should drive faster than 50 mph on that road!". And don't ask me who this nobody is. – Trilarion Nov 30 '16 at 9:00
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    Who is this 'Nobody' that you speak of? :) "Nobody should drive faster than 50 mph on that road!" is another very good way of not pointing blame at any individual person. – mike Nov 30 '16 at 9:03
2

I generally find both an impersonal "you" and "one" potentially problematic.

As you have pointed out, "you" can be taken as a direct reference to the person you are speaking to, perhaps even taken as an accusation.

In Britain, in my experience, most people believe that "one" can mean "I", in very formal upper class English. To tell the truth, I have never heard anyone use "one" in this way, except humourously, whatever their background. Despite that fact, I have been misunderstood at times, however, when using "one" impersonally.

So generally, I just avoid both of them, and say something like:

People shouldn't drive faster than 50 in that road.

or

It's not safe to drive faster than 50 on that road.

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