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Wonderful, ambiguous you

This post is about you, even though it isn’t a rhapsody of praise to a special someone. Actually, it isn’t even praise for a person. Considering that I’ve spent the previous week labouring long after midnight with my linguistics exam, it only seems fitting that I write a short piece to extol the hugely undervalued qualities of an English pronoun, don’t you think? Yes, I mean you!

Various languages seem to have different quirks in their pronouns. In Chinese, he/she/it is pronounced exactly the same, in Swedish they/them differ only in writing and… drum roll… English only has one word for second person plural and second person singular: you.

This ambiguity is great. It can be deliberately used to create effects that is impossible (or at least very difficult) to achieve in other languages. The most prominent example has to do with potential partners. Let’s say that you’re interested in a girl (or a boy, but I prefer girls, so I’ll stick to that in this post) and you want to test the waters. What do you do?

Providing I have already established social contact of some kind (this is a prerequisite for my being interested in the first place) and I’m in a social situation with many people involved, it’s possible to start dropping ambiguous comments. Since the ambiguity arises from the fact that we can’t distinguish between second person singular and second person plural, there has to be at least one more person involved. For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume that the girl in question has a friend that I’m familiar with as well. I’ve met both of them (usually at the same time), but I communicate with the girl I’m interested in more often.

The following works best in text messages when we can’t hear or see the other person. Faces and voices are seldom ambiguous: text is to a much higher extent. I might write something like this if I feel adventurous:

“Hi! I’m going to go out and have a bite to eat, would you like to come along?”

The ambiguity here is of course that the receiver has no way of knowing if I meant you singular (meaning that I’m asking just her) or you plural (meaning that I mean both of them). Of course, depending on the preceding messages, the meaning might be more or less obvious, but it’s not hard to make it ambiguous. There are several ways to react to this kind of message.

First, the receiver might not notice that there is an ambiguity and just assume one or the other without thinking (or make a subconscious decision). This is probably bad, but might change if you try again. Subconscious decisions might also say something, but I would be very careful with that.

Second, the receiver might notice the ambiguity and choose whichever answer she thinks best. Doing this once is not an indication of anything, but I’ve seen answers to similar, more indirect questions change gradually over time, from assuming you plural to trying out you singular and staying there.

So, this was just one example of how wonderful and exciting ambiguous pronouns can be. Can you think of any other ambiguity that can be deliberately used to achieve a certain effect? It doesn’t need to be pronouns and it doesn’t need to be in English!

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  1. Sara K.’s avatar

    It took me a while to figure out what you meant by ‘you’ … and when I figured it out, I laughed.

    I would like to note that in older Modern English there is ‘thou/thee/thy/thine’, which is only used in contemporary English to imitate older English, and that ‘you all’ or ‘y’all’ is used when the speaker wants to make it clear that ‘you’ is plural. Furthermore, in Old English, the word for ‘he’ and ‘they’ were so similar that it was very confusing – eventually, the word ‘they’ was borrowed from Old Norse just so that people would be less confused.

    The pronoun ‘we’ is also ambiguous in English … but not in Chinese ;)


    1. Olle Linge’s avatar

      I wrote the article to make people smile, so I’m happy I succeeded with that at least. :) I think it’s possible to avoid ambiguity in almost any language if one wants to, but here I think it’s more interesting that ambiguity is possible at all. The example wouldn’t work in Swedish. Or Chinese. Regarding Chinese, it’s worth noting that ??, which is what I assume you refer to, is mainly used on the Mainland. I’ve almost never heard anyone in Taiwan use the word, they always say ??.

      For the non-Chinese speakers, ?? is inclusive we (always including the addressee) and ?? can be both inclusive and exclusive (i.e. not including the addressee).


      1. Olle Linge’s avatar

        Oh, I managed to select the wrong character, it’s of course meant to be ? and not ? :) But yes, I think you’re right that it appears in writing, but as I said, I still think it’s very, very rare in spoken Chinese in Taiwan.


      2. Sara K.’s avatar

        Well, at least in writing (done by Taiwanese people), I’m pretty sure I’ve at least seen ?? quite a bit, but that just might be my memory playing tricks on me.