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When I took my English classes, I was taught that you can be used as impersonal you, for example when giving instructions to whoever is reading instructions; it is not referring to a specific person, but to whomever read them.

Be sure you connected the cable to the correct plug-in. If you aren't sure which is the correct plug-in, try connecting to a web site, and see the error you get.

Talking with a friend on mine, who was born in USA, I noticed she was confused from my use of the impersonal you.

Does that mean the impersonal you is not used anymore, or is the confusion raised from something else?

  • When writing a lot of my documentation/instructions I use impersonal you or we, depending on context. e.g. "Now we are going to create a new Class" or "After you have finished writing the test, you'll need to execute it to make sure it works" etc. But that is just my writing style I think. But I see a lot of documentation written this way – Deco Feb 8 '13 at 2:42
  • I joined English Language Learners just to upvote and thank you for posting this. Whenever I use impersonal you, I find more and more people are offended because they don't understand that "you" can be generic. It feels like a generational issue. – NobleUplift Oct 18 at 14:58
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Impersonal you is less formal than impersonal one. One should avoid it in formal conversations:

informal — If you aren’t choosing a proper impersonal pronoun when talking to people you don't know, you will have problems;
formal — If one isn’t choosing a proper impersonal pronoun when talking to people they don't know, they will have problems;

Also, don't forget that many languages don't have impersonal pronouns. The non-native speakers may be confused with that, especially if you are discussing someone's bad behavior, diseases, accidents, etc.

Nevertheless, impersonal "you" is becoming more popular recently, so don't hesitate using it if you know your audience.

Ngram for you should vs. one should

  • 3
    Be careful with ngrams, they can be useful but they can also be misleading. "you should" could come at the beginning of a sentence, but it could also come in the middle as in: "I think you should accept the job offer." These occurrences ought not be counted here, but your search terms inadvertently do count them. – Jim Feb 8 '13 at 2:33
  • @Jim Good observation. Let me think of a better example. Or, if you have one, feel free to suggest it. – bytebuster Feb 8 '13 at 2:43
  • I have the opposite experience. I find more and more when I use the generic you, people believe that I am referring to them and become offended. – NobleUplift Oct 18 at 15:06

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