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I am not sure if my understanding is correct about how commas must be used in case of a pronoun "you" and an appositive.

The wikipedia page on apposition says: enter image description here And The Blue Book of Grammar says: enter image description here So, from these two sources I gather that if the scope of possible meanings of the following appositive is narrower than that of the preceding identifier, then commas are not needed:

My teacher Jim McAlister was here yesterday.

Here the scope of possible meanings of Jim McAlister is definitely narrower than the scope of my teacher; therefore, there are no commas.

But what if the preceding identifier is simply pronoun "you"?

Naturally, I would think that "you" would always imply the number of people the speaker is addressing, but the following example made me think otherwise:

enter image description here

Here Rameses is speaking only to Moses, but his point is that all of Hebrews have been a big trouble, not just Moses. This example shows that "you" may not mean exactly those people who are being addressed or spoken to.

If so, then whatever identifier would be placed as an appositive right after "you" will always be narrower in scope of its possible meanings (than the scope of meanings of "you") because it will always be specifying which one of the possible meanings of "you" is exactly meant. Therefore, as far as I understand, in case of "you" and an appositive following right after it, commas are never needed.

However, I keep seeing again and again such sentences like:

You, the teachers, should bear a bigger responsibility.

You, Mr. Robertson, have failed to report to the captain.

I see such sentences in many authoritative sources and, as can be seen in the examples, commas are always used around the appositives in them. Why is it so? How does it go along with the rules of using commas in such cases, as described in Wikipedia and in Blue Book of Grammar?

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  • @BillJ - "In "You Hebrews have been nothing but trouble", "you" is not a pronoun but a personal determinative, and "Hebrews" is not an appositive but head of the NP "you Hebrews"" - How do you differentiate between "you" the pronoun and "you" the determinative, as well as between the head of NP and an appositive? Would you also say that in "You, Mr. Clark, were the only one who didn't support me" the very first word is a personal determinative and not a pronoun?
    – brilliant
    Oct 28, 2021 at 15:57
  • The personal determinatives are exactly parallel to the other definite determiners such as the demonstratives and the definite article in, for example, permitting quantifier "all" as a predeterminer, cf. "all we supporters of Brexit will win the argument". This property distinguishes them from the personal pronouns, which permit "all" only when postmodified, i.e. "All we/you who support Brexit will win the argument", but not *"All we/you will win the argument". Thus "we" and "you" are pronouns in "We, the supporters of Brexit, will win the argument"/ "You, the students, should form a society".
    – BillJ
    Oct 28, 2021 at 16:55
  • @BillJ: Thank you for this explanation, but there is no "all" in my original sentence, so I don’t know how this method can help. Besides, I don’t quit see how "You the students should form a society" is essentially different from "You the Hebrews have been nothing but trouble". The structures of these two sentences are pretty much the same, yet you are saying that "you" in the first is a pronoun, and a determinative in the second.
    – brilliant
    Oct 29, 2021 at 5:53
  • Probably somewhat relevant: Conventionally, the name of the person (or group) being addressed is set off by a comma or a pair of commas. What is Direct Address in Grammar and Rhetoric? .
    – Tom Hundt
    Nov 5, 2021 at 6:12

3 Answers 3

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"You X" - without commas - evidently does not follow the traditional rules of restrictive/non-restrictive apposition set forth in your question. The construction is used, as far as I can come up with, in three different ways:

  1. "You X..." = Statement about the group X, of which you are a member.

This is your given example - "You Hebrews have been nothing but trouble." "Hebrews" is the group to which the statement applies - i.e., presumably Rameses is referring to all Hebrews. "You" simply adds that the person or people being directly addressed by the speaker are understood by all to be members of this group. As mentioned by others, referring to an ethnic group in this manner today will typically be taken with offense.

  1. "You X..." = Statement about a subgroup of X, of which you are a member.

Take, for example, "You geniuses have finally solved the problem that I thought was impossible to solve!" Someone might say this to a person on a team that solved a really hard problem. The person is not referring to all geniuses - he's only referring to the people on the team that solved the problem. Further (unlike usage 1, above) it need not be understood beforehand that the people to whom the statement is addressed actually are geniuses - the speaker may well be using this utterance as a way to state his view that the team members are geniuses (which may be more of a compliment than something intended to be taken as literal truth).

"You guys", "you people", etc., to some extent fall into this category. Obviously the statement is not intended to refer to all "guys" or "people" - it is rather intended to refer to some smaller group, which is implied from context.

  1. "You X!" (singular)

This identifies the person as an X. "You filthy liar!" is an example. However, unlike the plural versions, the singular version can't be a subject of a sentence. "You saint are always thinking of others" isn't possible. Instead, say: "You saint - you're always thinking of others."


Note that in all of the above examples, articles aren't used. "You the Hebrews are nothing but trouble" would sound completely wrong. However, if commas are involved, the typical rules of non-restrictive apposition appear to apply and you'd expect an article: "You, the Hebrews, have been nothing but trouble." This would be more appropriate if Rameses were addressing a crowd of all of the Hebrews, or possibly a single person, if Rameses viewed that person as a representative of the Hebrews. Like Moses.

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  • ""You the Hebrews are nothing but trouble" would sound completely wrong." - Why would that sound completely wrong?
    – brilliant
    Nov 8, 2021 at 2:53
  • @brilliant: "You the X" as the subject of a sentence (i.e. without a comma after you) is just not idiomatic - doesn't exist. As soon as you add the "the", it sounds like non-restrictive version of the apposition you mentioned in your post and requires commas. In spoken English usually a pause would be observed where the commas are (but this may be extremely subtle or basically nonexistent). In any case, in this particular example, where X is an ethnic group addressed with some offense, "You X" is the idiom and "You, the X," is atypical (probably unheard of).
    – cruthers
    Nov 8, 2021 at 3:32
  • "in this particular example, where X is an ethnic group addressed with some offense, "You X" is the idiom and "You, the X," is atypical (probably unheard of)" - Do you have any sources that would substantiate this statement?
    – brilliant
    Nov 8, 2021 at 5:09
  • No, I only speak from experience and am trying to explain how it works. I'd be interested to see if anyone can find anything contradictory.
    – cruthers
    Nov 8, 2021 at 5:42
  • (1) "However, if commas are involved, the typical rules of non-restrictive apposition appear to apply and you'd expect an article: "You, the Hebrews, have been nothing but trouble." - But why should the rules of none-restrictive apposition apply? Isn't in this case the apposition "the Hebrews" a restrictive one? It shows which one of the three possible meanings of the pronoun "you" is meant (1. just Moses; 2. the group of people that are present and being addressed; 3. the nation of Hebrews including the one(s) present;).
    – brilliant
    Nov 8, 2021 at 5:59
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You Hebrews have been nothing but trouble.

The word "Hebrews" in this sentence is not an appositive, but rather a determiner. The difficulty in understanding this likely comes from the fact that the meaning of "you" has shifted in the past two hundred years or so to a word that can be either singular (most common) or plural1.

An appositive explains who a subject is. For example, "Obama, former President of the United States." If "You" were singular here, and "Hebrews" were an appositive, the meaning would be "Moses, who are Hebrews" which makes no sense as it mixes singular and plural.

But "You" can still have the meaning of the old plural form, and that is what is happening here. It's not "You = Moses" it's "You = Many People (of which Moses is one)". Which "many people" are being referred to here? Well, that's where the determiner comes in. The "many people" are "Hebrews".

The phrase "You {nationality or race (in plural)}" is idiomatic in English to refer to a person and people who share that person's nationality or race... but I have to caution you against ever using it, because this phrase is considered HIGHLY OFFENSIVE.

Actually, this is a very important point, so let me repeat that a little louder.

Using the idiomatic expression "You {nationality or race}", or "You people" is highly offensive, and should not be used unless you intend to cause offense, and be seen as a racist bigot.

I hope this explains the grammar of the phrase, however.

Notes:

1) The plural form of "you" used to be the only meaning of the word. The singular form has slowly been supplanting it in usage over time, such that today the singular is the predominant meaning. "You" also used to be a very formal word, but the formality of the word no longer applies; it can be used in both formal and informal contexts.

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  • Thank you for this input, but you've literally said nothing about commas, while commas are the central part of my question. Why, for example, there are no commas in "You Hebrews have been nothing but trouble" and, as I suppose, there must be commas in "You, the Hebrews, have been nothing but trouble"? Besides, it would also be good if you explained how to tell a determiner from an appositive.
    – brilliant
    Nov 5, 2021 at 7:57
  • @brilliant - Someone had to make the point and Richard Winters's comment is much more important than a little comma, since then it would have been easy to modify your example in the question but you haven't. As I can read it Richard Winters has answered your question.
    – None
    Nov 7, 2021 at 17:43
  • @None: "Richard Winters's comment is much more important than a little comma" - Whether it was "much more important" or not depends on the particular situation. That "you {nationality or race}" was offensive I knew long before I asked this question, so hearing that again was not important to me at all! My question was precisely about commas, not about etiquette. "it would have been easy to modify your example in the question but you haven't" - How would you want me to modify my example? And why would I need to modify the examples when my question is exactly about those very examples?!
    – brilliant
    Nov 8, 2021 at 2:34
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[You Hebrews] have been nothing but trouble.

In this example, "you" is not a pronoun but a personal determinative, and "Hebrews" is not an appositive NP but head of the NP "you Hebrews", functioning as subject of the sentence.

There are two personal determinatives; the other is "we", as in, for example, "We students demand to be heard".

Like the demonstratives, the personal determinatives "you" and "we" mark the NP as definite, but this time what is expressed in addition to definiteness is person deixis: "you" denotes a set containing at least one addressee but not the speaker; "we" a set containing the speaker.

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  • Would you also say that "you" is a personal determiner in "It was not nice of you, Mr. Clark"?
    – brilliant
    Oct 28, 2021 at 16:01
  • No: "you" is a personal pronoun functioning as complement (object) of the preposition "of".
    – BillJ
    Oct 28, 2021 at 18:08
  • "No: "you" is a personal pronoun functioning as an object of the preposition "of"" – I assume that if we had dropped "Mr." from this sentence ("It was not nice of you Clark."), you would have still said the same thing. But why? Why not consider then "you Clark" a noun phrase that is an object of the preposition "of"?
    – brilliant
    Oct 29, 2021 at 5:55
  • 2
    -1 You have not explained what a "personal determinative" is, why you think that" you" is a personal determinative in this sentence, how to tell when "you" is a personal determinative, nor cited any source on the matter. The quite obscure term "deixis" is IMO inappropriate, for ELL, it will not help most learners. Nov 4, 2021 at 6:11

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