Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
Home » Misc. » Blog | About me Impressum Contact Sitemap

WordPress posts


This is a duplication of some posts made at my WordPress accounte. You may prefer reading them there—in particular, if you want to give feedback. I strongly encourage you to never link here, but directly to the WordPress account. To limit the size of this page, older posts can be found in the archives: [1], [2], [3]

The abominable over- and misuse of “you”

An ever recurring annoyance in today’s writing is over- and misuse of “you”. The “Freshly Pressed” entries on WordPress, e.g., are usually full of the word. Software literature is another great source of examples—the more absurd because software developers need to be of above to noticeably above average intelligence, and those who might actually benefit from “you” are best kept away from the field.

What is wrong with using “you”? Nothing—when the reader is validly addressed directly. This, however, is almost never the case. It is far more common to abuse “you” through-out a text as e.g. a highly sub-optimal means of attaching actions (believes, emotions, whatnot) to a subject. In these cases, there are a number of issues:

  1. The result is unnecessarily wordy and hard to read, compared to more adult formulations. Compare

    However, if you want to use features such as hot redeployment on a full application server, you need to package your application correctly.

    (genuine example) with

    However, to use features such as hot redeployment on a full application server, we need a correctly packaged application.

    The second text is shorter, easier to understand, and stylistically better. Consider the effect not merely on individual sentences, but on the length of books: This is a roughly 15 % drop in length (more in terms of words; less in terms of characters). Admittedly, this sentence is not representative, but even shaving off just a few per cent can be valuable for a hard-working professional.

    As an aside: The fact that I often am unnecessarily wordy, even without over-using “you”, is a matter of personal incompetence in this area—not a sign of problems with non-“you” texts in general.

  2. “You” is often condescending, misleading, illogical, or entirely ridiculous. A particularly atrocious example is the common “in this chapter you will learn”: Possibly, but the reader may also merely be refreshing something he already knows—or even be a reviewer with superior knowledge... Even if not, the statement can be faulty, e.g. because the reader is merely currently getting an overview, contemplating individual points, or is slow on the uptake. A far better formulation is “in this chapter we discuss X” or “this chapter deals with X”.

    I have even often seen “you” (the reader) used where context demanded “I” (the author)... A typical example would be a traveler describing his emotions or subjective impressions during certain events of a journey. Obviously, it should be “When I saw Mount Everest, I was filled with humility.”, not “When you see Mount Everest, you are filled with humility.” or any similar formulation.

    Rule-of-thumb: Does the text work when taken from the perspective of an actual reader who takes “you” as a direct reference to him? If not, “you” is inappropriate. (The reverse conclusion does not necessarily hold.)

  3. “You” polarizes the author and his readers; “we” unites them; other formulations provide neutrality.

  4. “You” can be accusatory, even to the point of raising the issue of guilt or fault with innocents. Consider an oral example: “When you come late, you hinder the rest of the team.” Unless the counter-part actually did come late, this formulation is entirely and utterly unacceptable: Not only will most feel accused, but a third-party who over-hears the discussion can come to entirely incorrect conclusions. If the discussion is intended to be general, it should be kept general: “When someone comes late, he hinders the rest of the team.”

  5. As can be seen by the previous item, “you” introduces unnecessary ambiguities: Is the author/speaker discussing the counter-part or a generic someone?

Rule-of-thumb: Try to replace every instance of “you” with an alternate formulation using “we”, a generic pronoun (e.g. “someone” or “one”), a sentence with an implicit subject (this sentence is an example), or a passive. Only allow the “you” to stand on those rare occasions when it actually is the best alternative. (Do not follow guide-lines that try to ban the passive outright: The passive is very valuable and the extreme anti-passive stance that many naive teachers take is highly misguided—they parrot and misapply an insight that they have not actually understood. Excesses of passives should be avoided, true, but very many uses are legitimate and beneficial, and bending backwards to eliminate them does far more harm than good—just like the positive effects of a pinch of salt on a soup are no reason to empty an entire salt-shaker into the pot.)

To expand on the implicit subject: This may seem to be just as bad as using “you” on a casual glance, because the implicit subject may seem to be a “you”. There are at least two crucial advantages, however: Firstly, there is no unnecessary overhead. Secondly, the implicit subject could in most cases be something else, e.g. a “we” or a more abstract entity. (For example, a “Try to [...]” could be seen as “We should try to [...]” rather than “You should try to [...]”.) This resolves the problems with e.g. an accusatory or condescending tone.

Let no man pull you low enough to hate him

I just encountered a post titled Quotes I likee stating:

Let no man pull you low enough to hate him.
Martin Luther King Jr.
US black civil rights leader & clergyman (1929 – 1968)

I was struck by the great contrast between this and the very often hateful attitude of the self-proclaimed anti-racists of today. For instance, just yesterday, I saw the following commente:

Rasister är vidriga. Måtte de döden dö.

(Racists are despicable. They should die. [Lit. “May they die the death”, a Swedish expression.])

I have tendency to end up with browser tabs that are open for weeks or even months in a row, because I do not have the time to read the contents at the time of the first visit, wish to re-read the contents later, think that the page could make a good base for a blog entry, or similar.

Cleaning up the browser instance dedicated to blogging, I found a number of links relating to e.g. male–female brain differences or unfair treatment of boys in school, having in common that I had at the time planned a blog entry on the topic.

Until I have found the time, I publish the corresponding URLs here, so that I can close the tabs with a semi-good conscience. I stress that I do not guarantee that any individual link will be of high value, nor that it were intended as more than a starting point—some are/were; others not.

In English:

In Swedish:

In German:

Do you want equality? I hate to break it to you, but you’re a hardcore ANTI-feminist. I swear.

In the process of cleaning up my tabs (cf. the previous entry), I also re-encountered a particularly annoying blog entrye (and guess whose factual-but-dissenting comment had been censored...):

The post makes a long quote from a feminist work that I will analyze below, and seems to have an exceedingly naive view of what feminism is:

Do you think it’s fair that a guy will make more money doing the same job as you? Does it piss you off and scare you when you find about your friends getting raped? Do you ever feel like shit about your body? Do you ever feel like something is wrong with you because you don’t fit into this bizarre ideal of what girls are supposed to be like?

As has been discussed repeatedly, it is a myth that women earn less than men for equal work. Cf. e.g. [1]. The number of women who are raped is comparatively small—far smaller than feminists like to claim. The perception that a woman has to adhere to a certain ideal and her insecurities about this stem primarily from herself and other women.

Well, my friend, I hate to break it to you, but you’re a hardcore feminist. I swear.

Not at all: Apart from the contextual remarks already given, equal pay is not something feminist (it can even increasingly be seen as anti-feminist); however, the stubborn belief, contrary to evidence, that women earn significantly less than men for equal work is indeed strongly overlapping with feminist opinions. Similarly, an opposition to rape is not feminist—only the distortion of statistics and definitions, and the cheap rhetoric around it. Similarly, again, criticism of e.g. body ideals is not feminism—but the unfair attempts to blame men for them usually are.

Indeed, I would not hesitate to claim that someone who truly wants equal opportunities, rights, responsibilities, whatnot, for the sexes is, by necessity, anti-feminist: Feminism is currently the greatest single threat to this goal—as is abundantly clear to anyone with insight into the situation in Sweden.

For some reason, feminism is seen as super anti: anti-men, anti-sex, anti-sexism, anti-everything. And while some of those antis aren’t bad things, it’s not exactly exciting to get involved in something that’s seen as so consistently negative.

On the contrary, feminism has for a long time benefited from an undeserved reputation as a force of good—including begin “pro-” (most notably pro-equality). That the pendulum is starting to turn is a good thing. (Notwithstanding that the presence of absolute nutcases, e.g. Andrea Dvorkin, has made the proportion of early anti-feminists and those sceptic to feminism in the US greater than in e.g. Sweden.)

As an aside, I have to ask which of the “some of those antis” that “aren’t bad things” are: A plural is indicated, which implies that at least one of “anti-men”, “anti-sex”, and “anti-everything”, would be good. Twisted world-view or lack of writing ability? Experiences with feminists could point to the former, the previous incongruency in the first three sentences quoted point to the latter.

The good news is that feminism isn’t all antis. It’s progressive and – as cheesy as it sounds – it’s about making your life better.

Feminism is severely regressive and destructive. If “your” refers specifically to a woman, the last sentence may be true in theory, but wrong in practice—in the end feminism is likely to do more harm than good to women too. Where men are concerned, even consideration for negative side-effects on men (e.g. from new legislation) is usually absent; attempts to actively improve life for men are as good as unheard of.

As different as we all are, there’s one thing most young women have in common: we’re all brought up to feel like something is wrong with us. We’re too fat. We’re dumb. We’re too smart. We’re not ladylike enough – stop cursing, chewing with your mouth open, speaking your mind. We’re too slutty. We’re not slutty enough.

A pure strawman: Firstly, this is an over-generalization. Secondly, the ones doing the “bringing up” in this direction are typically other women. Thirdly, the claim ignores the many similar issues that men have. Fourthly, this has nothing to do specifically with feminism—feminism is not the white knight in shining armor who will save the poor women from this windmill.

Looking at the comments, it is not an iota better:

(Ellen Smith)

Well, feminism is a strong word but being a feminist doesn’t necessarily mean “man-hater” I think that is a misconception. It’s just about being equal in spite of biological/gender differences…

The implication that feminism would be seen as equaling man-hate is partially a strawman, partially glossing over the fact that disturbingly many feminists have very strong negative feelings about men—when not hate, then at least despise. Further, severe prejudices about what men want, think, do, and what the “male role” is are abundant.

Feminism is not about “being equal in spite of biological/gender differences”. On the contrary, a significant part of the main feminist ideology of today is the stubborn denial of any such differences (outside of mere physical characteristics). Further, the feminist movement has proved again and again that it strives not for equality, but for women’s rights and benefits—even at the cost of equality.

(Caroline Garrod/the blog author resp. text quoter)

I would argue, though, that “feminism” doesn’t have to be a strong word – it can and hopefully one day will be universally perceived as a normal statement, as much as one would say “of course I’m antiracist”.

Again a direct reversal of the actual position of feminism in public perception. Being feminist has been the politically correct and accepted position for several decades—at best/worst, it has been a merely acceptable position; at worst/best, half the college women loudly proclaim themselves to be feminists (usually without having any idea of what modern feminism entails).

The recent growing turn-around is positive and it is to be hoped that one day the claim “of course I’m antifeminist” will be just as normal as “of course I’m antiracist”: Feminism and racism are both destructive ideologies that no enlightened person should support.

(With reservations for “racist” and “anti-racist” being used in their proper meanings. As have been observed repeatedly, this is rarely the case. Cf. e.g. [2].)

The author of the original text, by the way, is Jessica Valenti, whose name I have repeatedly seen associated with anti-male prejudice, blaming of men, and similar. A quick web search found e.g. [3]e and [4]e.