May 2009 Archives

Generic You Grammar Tip


As most linguists will tell you, most spoken forms, even the colloquial or dialectal forms that your writing instructor tells you not to use - just not ones that are documented on paper. Ironically, the grammar of these forms are hard to nail down because in colloquial speech, it's rare that they are used ungrammatically (that is in a way that people don't understand). To make it worse, it's hard to find informants who are willing to admit that they use the construction and are willing to sit down to run through weird linguistic tests.

Occasionally though, someone does make a mistake - either through irony or sometimes through imitating a form he or she doesn't really know. And then, you get an insight!

Take the case of "generic you" ...

Generic you is when you use the second person singular to mean "anyone" as in 'You always eat turkey at Thanksgiving in the U.S.!'

In written English, the use of "one" is preferred, as in:

Generic you is when one uses the second person singular to mean anyone as in "One always eats turkey at Thanksgiving.

People object to generic you partly because they feel that it's not semantically logical (as if that really counts in grammar). But as this blog post from Mr Kyle notes, it is very common in modern English.

As Mr Kyle alludes, many people use "you" when they really mean "I" (as in "You get depressed when work on a dissertation all day and really begin to look forward to the Martha Stewart show "). But generic you and "I" are not actually interchangable - there is a restriction.

Specifically, "you" only works in contexts when a speaker means "me and anyone else in my hypothetical situation." If the context is so specific that the situation describes ONLY THE SPEAKER then generic you is ungrammatical. Mr Kyle actually has a few of these as ironic "examples" of how to use this construction (they are meant to sound totally silly...and they do.)

  1. *You enjoyed answering these questions
    = I (Mr Kyle) enjoyed answering these questions
  2. *You wish you all good luck.
    = I (Mr Kyle) wish you all good luck
  3. ?You'd like some pancakes - this won't work if a waiter is taking your order, but can work if you are narrating a story about someone in search of breakfast treats.

Thus the following advice is not accurate (Mr. Kyle will be crushed)

How do I do [refer to myself in the second person]?

Easy. When referring to yourself, simply replace the word "I' with the word 'you'. For example, if asked what you'd like for breakfast, instead of, "I'd like some pancakes", respond, "You'd like some pancakes."

It really should be more like:

How (and when) can you do refer to yourself in the second person?

Easy. Place your sentence in a context which can apply to both you (as speaker) and to other people. If the situation only applies to you (as speaker), you cannot use this construction and must switch to first person.

As silly as this discussion sounds, it is important to note a principal which is that speakers don't realize how complicated speaking is. Language (vs. good writing) seems very easy because we do it everyday (and use constructions like generic without thinking about things like "context"), but when you actually try to describe it, it is amazingly tricky stuff.

Concept Maps and Verbs


I'm cleaning out my instructional design papers and I ran into the "concept map" papers and remembered an interesting question about whether you should include verbs in concept maps.

First, if you don't know what a "concept map" is, I'll just say it's a diagram of concepts and how they connect. Here's a concept map from Wikipedia to define what a concept map is. Typically concepts (usually nouns) are placed in different shapes and arrows are drawn to show different types of connections. Note though that these arrows are labeled with either verbs or prepositions.

Concept map of Concept Map
Click Image to Enlarge

Now although I adore diagrams, I find concept maps surprisingly confusing. A question to LinguistList pointed out one reason why - the arrow labels are confusing (and it may not be just me). In theory, if you can add labels to boxes, you should be able to add labels to connections, but that may not be the best approach.

The truth is that our culture (and many others) use a lot of concept maps including family trees, subway maps, pie charts and many others. In almost all of them, the labels are left blank and the conventions of placement/size telegraph the relationships. Either by culture or maybe some inborn ability, I think a lot of people have learned to interpret relations just from the graphic design. (If you're not a natural map reader, I would be curious to see if labelling does any good).

For instance, in a family tree, we understand that the names on top are the ancestors and those on the bottom are the descendants. The equal sign or line between a man and a woman usually indicates marriage and lines from the equal sign to a name is a legitimate child (unless it's a dotted line, in which case things are different). Similarly names on the same level with lines going to the same equal sign are full siblings. Finally if it's a royal family, the bold face name or the one in another color is the monarch.

You can convey a lot of information with just changes in lines and special labels. In fact, you can usually make connections (e.g. determining first cousin or transfer point on a subway system) by tracking the appropriate sets of lines to the proper boxes. I would say that this convention is so powerful that adding too many labels is in fact distracting because it is interfering with the cues that the diagram structure is trying to convey.

You can call it interference on the visual vs verbal/linguistic channels if you like. In the map with the labeled arrows above, the arrows are all the same which implies "same relationship" (at least locally), but the labels are saying "no - different relationship". You really may have conflicting cues here.

So I'll present two concept maps below, my original one without the labels and one with labeled arrows. Which one is clearer to you?

Two Images - Dialects of English

Click Each Version to View Full Size Image

Concept Map, No Labels on Arrows, Different Shapes for Dialects vs Events. Description Below

Concept Map, No Labels on Arrows, Different Shapes for Dialects vs Events. Description Below

Text Version

We begin at Anglo Saxon (pre 1066) which is spoken in England and southern Scotland. In 1066, the Norman Invasion (William the Conquerer) establishes a foreign government in England, but not Scotland. Scots splits off from the rest of English (somewhat before the Great Vowel Shift. In England most dialects go through the Great Vowel Shift and lose /x/ and /ΓΌ/.

During the period when North America is colonized, many dialects in English experience loss of word final /r/, but some maintain it. Settlers from regions losing the final /r/ arrive in New England, New York City and the South, but settlers who keep the /r/ arrive in the Mid Atlantic and Canada. The MId-Atlantic form becomes Standard American/Standard Canadian while the New England and Southern forms become regional dialects. Standard U.S. continues to evolve into Californian English and other varieties (as does New England/New York/South).

After American independence, the English continue to colonize other regions in the world including Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Although these dialects experience unique vowel changes, they have all lost final /r/.

Note this is just a quick summary. You should read more about the history of each dialect for details. The books Albion Seed (David Hackett Fisher) and The Story of English (Robert McCrum and Robert MacNeil) have some good information.