Why You Write In The Second Person


You mean well. Chances are you write well too. You’re perceptive, in that beautiful way enabled by an adolescence spent in the Internet age. You can look at something as modern and soulless as Facebook and discover something wonderful about love, life, death. But you really get my attention, for better or for worse, when you use the second person.

Did you know that many languages have formal modes of address? Usted in Spanish, Sie in German, nín in Chinese. “You” is a big deal in a lot of contexts, and not just grammatically. Even in English you might have been conditioned to say “I love myself” – if you’re anything like me, you’ve been taught to fear saying (or maybe even hearing) the words “I love you.”

But only if you’re anything like me. You might be completely different. In fact, you’re definitely different. Not in the most intrinsic ways, you might say — the inevitability of your death; your capacity for love; your birth, childhood, and burgeoning adulthood in this new and awful century. And these are the things you write about – these pieces of our shared humanity. Rhetorically, “you” drives it home. You read something written in the second person, but we all internalize it in the first. Yes, I do identify with that broad and general statement about my sex life. Yes, I do wish I had a better relationship with my extended family. Yes, I do find that metaphor particularly apt. Yes, I have been that sh-tfaced. Yes. I guess so. Yes.

Why do you find the second person so comfortable? Why do I? It’s presumptuous in the extreme, and a major no-no in academic writing, or, for that matter, any formal writing at all. Maybe its prevalence in this modern and most informal setting is a reaction against such rules, like how the passive voice is not to be used. And how sentences usually shouldn’t begin with “and.” To avoid fragments. Maybe it’s how you speak, too, when giving advice or talking about love, in person, to a close friend or confidant — writing like you talk, talking like you write. Speech as text. Maybe the convenience of the internet makes it impossible to distinguish between the two.

Reading text written in the second person often feels like a visit to a psychic I can’t help but trust. When your “you” strikes home (I have, in fact, been that sh-tfaced, how did you know?) I find your prescience uncanny. When you miss the mark I begin to worry that there’s something I’ve overlooked. I too use Facebook — am I supposed to hate the Timeline? I’ve been known to treat men as disposable — do I need to correct my behavior? Have I known it all along? How did you know?

More often, however, it feels like a visit to a psychic who I know can not, and can never be, correct. Your “you” shows me that you find yourself omniscient, that our shared existence on this earth, in this millennium, tells you so much about me that you can write about it. And maybe you can. I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, or shouldn’t say one way or the other.

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