Chapter 4-1-5: Use "it," "they," and "you" carefully
In conversation people often use expressions such as "It says in this book that ..." and "In my home town they say that ...". These constructions are useful for information conversation because they allow you to present ideas casually, without supporting evidence; for academic writing, however, these constructions are either too imprecise or too wordy. Other confusing words when referring to people, or groups of people, are "we", "us", "our", "many", "some", "most", "those", "one", "others", and "your." Examine the following examples:
[WRONG] In Chapter four of my autobiography it says that I was born out of wedlock.
In Chapter four, what says that the speaker was born out of wedlock?
[WRONG] In the restaurant they gave me someone else's linguini.
Who gave the speaker someone else's linguini?
It would be better to rewrite these two sentences as follows:
[RIGHT] Chapter four of my autobiography states that I was born out of wedlock.
[RIGHT] In the restaurant, the server gave me someone else's linguini.
In these revised sentences, there is no doubt about who is doing what.
The same basic rule applies to the pronoun "you." In informal conversation and in instructional writing (like HyperGrammar), English speakers often use the pronoun to mean something like "a hypothetical person" or "people in general"; academic writing, however, needs to be more precise, and you should use "you" only when you want to address the reader directly (as I am doing here). Consider this example:
[WRONG] In the fourteenth century, you had to struggle to survive.
In this case, "you" obviously does not refer to the reader, since the reader was not alive during the seventeenth century. It would be better to rewrite the sentence so that it expresses your idea more precisely; for example
[RIGHT] In the fourteenth century, people had to struggle to survive.
Or even better yet,
[RIGHT] In the fourteenth century, English peasant farmers had to struggle to survive.