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This research is 60 years in the making:

How “you” makes meaning

“You” is one of the most common words in the English language. Although it typically refers to the person addressed (“How are you?”), “you” is also used to make timeless statements about people in general (“You win some, you lose some.”). Here, we demonstrate that this ubiquitous but understudied linguistic device, known as “generic-you,” has important implications for how people derive meaning from experience. Across six experiments, we found that generic-you is used to express norms in both ordinary and emotional contexts and that producing generic-you when reflecting on negative experiences allows people to “normalize” their experience by extending it beyond the self. In this way, a simple linguistic device serves a powerful meaning-making function.


  1. Dave Meyer says:

    It all depends on how you look at it. In any case, it would be even more interesting if you mentioned explicitly that all of this work on ‘you’ has been getting done by you(r) sister. You know what I mean. Cf. Luke & Leah…

  2. AV says:

    The kind of result that you known is right – even before it is done…

  3. jrc says:

    “On est encore ce qu’on va cesser d’être et ce que l’on déjà va devenir.”

    Which just makes the point that your sister passed up the opportunity to title this paper “On On”.

  4. Martha (Smith) says:

    To respond more seriously to jrc’s comment (and also to AV’s)after having read the paper:

    In some sense, much of this paper really seems to be studying whether or not native English speakers correctly use the word “you” in each of its two definitions (roughly corresponding to French “tu” and “on”). (Yes, English does have “one” for the “generic you”, but it is usually considered stilted and not colloquial.)

    It would be interesting see a cross-language study to compare generic and personal uses of “you” in English with uses of the corresponding words in languages that have different words for these two uses (especially if there is a language which, unlike French, does not have different singular and plural words for the “non-generic you”.) The “normative” aspect might, of course, vary according to the language.

    The “making meaning” stuff is something that just seems like a psychology theory that I’m not sure is as universal (or as real world?) as the paper makes it seem. Perhaps another way of putting this is that psychology often seems like a culture all its own to me.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      Thinking more about the two uses of “you” in English, I realized that there are also linguistic cues (stress and pronunciation) that often distinguish the two uses.

      For example, consider the sentence, “You hold the tennis racket this way.” This sentence can be said with either the generic-you or the specific-you meaning. In the former case, the word “this” receives the most stress, and “hold” has more stress than “you”. In the specific-you meaning, “You” and “this” have about equal stress, and “hold” has less stress than with the generic-you meaning.

      Also, there are two common ways to pronounce the word “you”. The standard pronunciation is “yoo” (rhymes with “too”). But there is a fairly common colloquial pronunciation as “yuh” (rhymes with “duh” or “huh”). The “yuh” pronunciation is typically used as an unstressed word, so would fit into the generic-you meaning of the sentence in question, but not into the specific-you meaning.

      The upshot seems to be that a listener could interpret which meaning of “you” is intended purely by pronunciation clues (rather than semantic” clues).

  5. I fished out a non-paywalled version from the authors:

    I love the idea of studying linguistic meaning, but I don’t understand the “norm” thing is that they’re assuming in the abstract and I didn’t understand it from reading the paper—all they say is that “it helps people “normalize” negative experiences by extending them beyond the self”.

    Looking at their data, I’m hardly surprised that with the two questions “What should you do with Xs [e.g., hammers]?” vs. “What do you like to do with Xs [e.g., hammers]?”, the former evoked more generic replies and the latter more personal. The former statement is most easily interpreted as normative and generic across people whereas the latter is most easily interpreted as being about one person. They could’ve asked people if they felt each statement was meant to be about them personally or about normative. I don’t think “normative” is what they meant by “norm”, but like I said, I didn’t understand the jargon. I’m curious as to whether it was actually a personal situation for the person and the tense isn’t generic, whehter the same thing would happen, e.g.,

    1. What should you have done with X?

    2. What would you have liked to have done with X?

    [edit: should’ve read further—it’s roughly their experiment 2!]

    In this case, they’re clearly both personal—English tends to use present tense for generics. Now we have a setup where one is normative and one is preferential, but they’re both clearly about the person in question.

    P.S. I’d love to be a fly on the wall at the next Gelman family dinner in Ann Arbor when they discuss university press releases, small n, NHST, and the tabloids. Speaking of family, I doubt I could convince my sister to give up tabloids (and I don’t mean PNAS).

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