The Ban on 2nd Person

The Ban on 2nd Person
We are banned from using the 2nd person in academic essays for the perfectly good reason that its use inappropriately drags our readers into arguments they don’t belong in, asks them to imagine themselves in situations they will never be in, and makes things personal that shouldn’t be.

When we say, for example,

When you are released from prison, you are 3 times more likely to end up back in prison within 10 years than if you had never gone to prison in the first place.

we put our blameless readers in prison twice.

Substitute One?
One commonly recommended workaround to the ban on 2nd person is to substitute one for you. While the resulting sentences avoid the ban, they are graceless and unnecessarily stilted.

When one is released from prison, one is 3 times more likely to end up back in prison within 10 years than if one had never gone to prison in the first place.

In addition to sounding awful, this correction places us in pronoun limbo. We either have to continue to use the awkward one or substitute a male or female pronoun he or she, with their attendant problems.

Substitute a Class Noun
Nobody wants to write this way if we can avoid it, and we can easily avoid it.

Ex-convicts are 3 times more likely to end up in prison within 10 years of their release than those who have never been imprisoned.

Please note what we’ve done here. We substituted a class noun “ex-convicts” for the troublesome pronouns you and one. Whether they are drivers or voters, parents or students, the people we’re tempted to refer to as you can always be identified as members of a group.

Substitute We
Another recommended workaround is to substitute the first person plural we for the 2nd person you. In addition to avoiding the ban, first person plural creates a bond with readers. Where addressing readers as you often sounds accusatory, addressing them as we indicates we are in the situation together. If anyone is more likely to go to jail, it’s not just the readers, it’s all of us, the writer included. Whether we are Americans or voters, taxpayers or tax cheats, we share in the glories and the foibles of our group. Which of the following is likely to be more persuasive to readers?

If those people cared about the poor, they wouldn’t treat them so badly.

If you care about the poor, you don’t treat them so badly.

If one cares about the poor, one doesn’t treat them so badly.

If we cared about the poor, we wouldn’t treat them so badly.

There is no quicker way to bond with readers than to share a portion of the blame for a sad state of affairs.

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