Why You Shouldn’t Use “You” in Persuasive Essays

The second person, imperative voice can be very powerful in persuasive writing that aims to make the reader act or respond. Imagine a TV commercial:  “You know you want a cheeseburger! Try the new super melt!”

It can also be helpful in an informal letter to a friend giving advice, making plans, or just telling a story. Imagine an email: “Did you see how fast that turtle ran across the road this morning?”

“You” can be unintentionally disrespectful.

However, would you call your principal “You”? Would you call your teacher “You”? Would you call an SAT grader, a Bergen Academies admissions officer, or a college counselor “You”? Well, I hope not! Speaking directly to a reader can be disrespectful, especially in an informal tone.

As a teacher and grader, I have received many papers that use “You,” both in persuasive essays and literary analysis. Recently, my students read a story about a young man with Down syndrome. The essay prompt asked writers to discuss how society views people with disabilities. Some students wrote, generally, “Society sees the disabled as people with difficulties. You tend to avoid handicapped people, and you think they are suffering.”

As the grader, I am the audience for the writer’s essay. When the writer states, “You tend to avoid handicapped people,” the writer is talking to me. Now, I might be offended by such statements! I don’t do that! Wouldn’t it be better to avoid the risk of offending whoever will grade your essays?

Instead, reference a wider group of people.

Revise the sentence, replacing “you” with a reference to a broad group of people: “Society sometimes sees the disabled as people with difficulties. Some citizens tend to avoid handicapped people and think they are suffering.” As an example paragraph, it still needs a lot of detail to show who, where, when, why, and how, but we have solved the “you” problem.

So, think closely about your voice, and be aware of the strange power of first and second person, I-&-You language.

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