Let’s talk about pronouns (or should I use ‘I’, ‘we’ or ‘you’ in my writing?)

An acquaintance wrote an irate Facebook post recently, complaining about the ‘careless’ speech used by adults who ‘should know better’, citing words like nuffin for nothing or mumf for month.

I held back from pointing out the harm that can be done through judging accents or dialects, or from mentioning accommodation theory. Accommodation theory explains a tendency humans have to adjust their behaviour or language depending on the audience and is actually a pretty useful social skill.

Kids especially, can be very skilled at varying their language depending on context (as I realise whenever I fail to understand what my kids are talking about with their friends).

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

It’s also the reason I launch into a broad Pembrokeshire accent when I visit my home town.

Maybe you’ve experienced something similar.

Kids can be very skilled at adjusting their language to fit the situation

I’m a descriptivist linguist. That is, I look at what people say and write in context rather than what they ‘should’ say and write (for prescriptivists, think Henry Higgins or that grumpy grammarian who goes around with a red pen in hand, ready to pounce on rouge apostrophes).

Henry Higgins, fictional Professor of phonetics and Eliza Doolittle in the film My Fair Lady, adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalian .

I’m more interested in the effect that language has in the real world than on whether it’s ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. I like to know the ‘rules’ but I like to know when it’s good to break them too.

So how does all this help us with the question about which pronouns to choose when writing?

When I’m doing close text work with a client (as opposed to refining the content), we look at the effect that the writing, including the pronouns, has on the reader in context.

So as usual, there’s no right or wrong.

If it’s I, I, I, all the way through, will it be interesting for your reader?

It may well be—it’s dependent on the context. But often, if reflecting on an experience that has a teaching element, it might work to start with a personal story with I and then transition into they to talk about how how the issue has affected others or to talk about research on the topic (here’s the authority element) and then to we or you for the teaching focus.

The difference between we/ us and you

Sometimes too many yous can seem othering (look at me over here as the expert ready to teach you something).

Us and we on the other hand, can mean positioning yourself as a friend. I’m here, ready to come with you.

Let’s try that again.

Us and we on the other hand, can mean positioning ourselves as a friend. I’m here, ready to come with you.

See what I did there?

Sometimes, when we’re writing for a particular publication, we need to consider the house style.

Here’s what The Elephant Journal Style Guide has to say about this:

We try to refrain from publishing you-oriented articles in Elephant Journal …. This practice stems from the Buddhist principle of “experience it for yourself.”


The style guide then goes on to say how overusing ‘you’ can seem preachy or bossy.

Other publications may not mention pronoun use directly in their style guide, but it can be a useful exercise to check conventions.

So, as so often, it’s all in the context.

We need to think less about the right and wrong, and more about the effect that our writing will have on the reader.

If you’re not sure what effect your writing will have, try leaving it to ‘sit’ for 48 hours and then come back and read it aloud. Try noticing how you feel when you read others’ writing and pay attention to pronoun use.

But as ever, don’t overthink.

Above all, write, have fun writing and get your message out to the people who need to hear it!

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Published by Dr Lizzy Tanguay

Editor | Writing Coach | Applied Linguist

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