The second-person pronoun and textual effects

Exploring the use of you in different texts

In this lesson, students explore the potential readerly 'effects' of the second-person pronoun you.

Goals

  • To explore how the second-person pronoun is used in different text types.
  • To conduct a close stylistic analysis of different text.
  • To learn about and apply linguistic theory to text analysis.

Second-person you

Either provide students with a definition and examples of the second-person pronoun, or - even better - ask them to discuss it themselves.

The second-person pronoun you is used to refer to an individual or group in the immediate context. For example:

  • You need to stop talking.
  • Can you please print this out for me?
  • This is for all of you.

Uses of you in language

The second-person has a rich range of readerly effects, in both literary and non-literary texts. To prompt a discussion exploring these kinds of effects, provide students with the following extracts (also available as a handout, at the bottom of this lesson) and ask them to discuss the following questions:

  • Why is the second-person pronoun used? Think about writer-reader relationship, text type, and text purpose.
  • Who or what is the second-person pronoun referring to?
  • Are there other pronouns used? If so, how does the second-person pronoun form part of that system?

Students should think carefully about the text type/genre in their answers, and how this affects the kind of effects that you creates.

Following the discussion, introduce your students to some relevant theoretical linguistic concepts, which are outlined in the next section. Once these concepts have been introduced, asked students to return to the texts and apply the concepts to the their analysis.

Linguistic theory and you

You is a much-theorised word in linguistics. The following sections condense some of this theoretical work into readable summaries that can then be applied to text analysis by your students.

Deixis

Deixis is the way that language can 'point to' things. There are three types: person deixis (e.g. you, I, those people); time deixis (e.g. in the afternoon; at 4pm; yesterday) and place deixis (e.g. over there; come here; that chair). Each of these can be used on an axis of 'close by' (proximal deixis) or 'far away' (distal deixis). So, for example, if I said to somebody opposite me I think you should keep your mouth shut, then the you is referring to a person who is in close proximity, and so would be an example of proximal person deixis. 

Cross-world referencing

Many models of cognitive linguistics treat textual reading/writing in a system of 'layers' or 'levels. One of these layers is the 'discourse world', which is the immediate situation of text production/reception. This is very similiar to the notion of 'context'. So, for example, the discourse world is the precise moment and location that you are reading this text. The next layer, the 'text world' is produced upon reading a text, and is a mental representation of that text. Considering these layers or world levels, you works because it crosses the boundaries of discourse-text world. So, the reader (a discourse world participant) becomes part of a text-world. This can be thought of as cross-world referencing, because the same person is referenced at two seperate world levels. 

Reader immersion and transportation

Work in stylistics and reader-response studies have long shown that reading is often talked about with a TRANSPORTATION or IMMERSION metaphor. For example, reading that book took me to another world or I'm really lost in the book. One stylistic effect of second-person you then, is to make readers feel that they have been physically transported and/or immersed to the story world depicted by the text.

Synthetic personalisation

Work by critical discourse analyst Normal Fairclough argues that the second-person pronoun can create the phenomenon of 'synthetic personalisation'. Fairclough was primarily interested in political discourse, whereby you is used in its plural sense to address a large audience. However, Fairclough argues that because you also has a singular-address function, its usage in political discourse can create the 'fake' or 'synthesised' idea that a mass group is being addressed as if they were individuals. This can create the impression that political discourse is highly 'personalised', making individual readers feel that they are being directly addressed and have responsibility for the kinds of actions that are being discussed in the text. 

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