Hot Damn that is My Jam: the Use of the Second Person

Deal with it.

I love second person.

There I typed it. I will hopefully hit “Publish” later and then this will be released, in black and white kilobytes, for any and all who surf that world wide web to shake their heads over and “tsk” at.

I know that second person is not the most popular out there. It is, next to third person, omniscient, and first person, the kind of nerdy, awkward kid on the playground who is somehow fascinating in her strangeness, and nonetheless, not cool enough to hang out with all that much.

And I get it. Second person is inherently dangerous on some levels, stripping away the comfort of distinguishing reader from text, fiction from reality, and asking a reader to enter into the story and participate on a level that is more difficult to achieve in other POVs. It is a little uncomfortable to have the text metaphorically start telling you, dear reader, how you think and how you feel about a subject, or tell you how you might react. Most readers express their discomfort in this “narrative closeness” by being downright indignant about it and putting the story in question aside.

And that makes sense.

I came to my love of second person through an active distaste of the use of you.

You know what I mean. Regardless of the genre, the medium, or the audience, everywhere and anywhere you could possibly read in this wide world – blogs, news articles, fiction, creative non-fiction, poetry – a damnable you is bound to crop up. By “damnable you” I mean “ineffective, wasteful, generalized, and above all lazy you”.

You reader, are not generally ineffective, wasteful, generalized, or lazy. I should hope not, at least. If so, this might not be the blog you want to read, because I am not in the self-help business, unfortunately. I am in the business of carving out language and stories: clean, clear, coherent and precise as I possibly can.

And to this end, I am at war with the lazy yous out there.

What’s the big deal? you might be asking. (Or not.)

Generally, when people use a “you”, it is a reflex. They will write “you will all agree with me that” or use the you in such a manner that they author makes it clear they are speaking to the broadest, most topical audience possible.  The lazy you is a way of trying to include “everyone” in the most general terms without consider the weight or implications of the use of you, without considering the audience very closely.

Because wait – who the hell are you?

In the generalized, lazy you, there is no specific “you”. There is no-one person or group of people the author or narrator is speaking to.

In the worst case scenario, this kind of you manifests in student papers with alarming frequency. “You will agree with me that . . .”, “you should believe”, “you ought to”  etc ad infinitum until the reader is drowning in these generalities. At worst this lazy use of you makes a text bland and blunts the force of any strong ideas, because the prose is, you know, so generalized, vague, and lacking in a sense of who the author is trying to address.

The vague “you” is used in everyday speech, in blogs and informal writings all the time, usually without detriment. Especially in the colloquial sense. Speech can sustain verbal or linguistic vagueness because it also has a person’s tone and expressions and body language to convey a message. And besides, no-one in their right mind thinks about you that much when they are speaking, unless you are well, a writer, or perhaps an actor or linguist.

In fiction, too, the general you is viable in some cases – as long as the author is somewhat aware who the you is. If it is a first person narrative, we must know who the narrator is speaking to. If we do not, the you is un-anchored and becomes lazy, bland. In third person, the author should probably strive to answer who you is, even if it is “my readers”, simply so they know who they are addressing when they use you. Similarly with omniscient.

Which leads us (you and I) back to the question of second person: the anchored you. The dazzling you. The specific you.

Because I do not think that second person is most effective when you employ a vague, general character, someone who is more of a blank slate or a stereotype rather than a complete person. I think it is most productive and effective when you have a specific person linked to the you.

For example, in the photograph above, my critiquer cheekily remarked on my use of second-person in a short story he read over. In this short story, the specific you is not him, my critiquer, but a person, a character. It is Lord Byron, in fact. I will admit to being a bit of a Byron fanboy, to the point where I have wondered what I might ask him, or say to him. Thus, when I wrote a short story about him, it was never intended to be written from his perspective. It is written from the outside, by someone who is looking in at him and trying to suss him out.

The use of you also forces the reader to engage with the story and hopefully to wonder – what was it like to be Byron? And not in the cliche “he was a sexy poet rock star of his time” way, but underneath the veneer and the image – what was it really like to be you, George Gordon Byron? I wanted readers to empathize and connect with him a direct and visceral manner, something that – if done correctly – second person can do. (I am not altogether sure I succeeded, by the by.)

In another short story, which I wrote as part of my MA dissertation, I employed the second person and the you in that story is a young FTM (female to male) transgender man. My entire dissertation focused on the lives and experiences of FTM men – all with very different personalities and struggles. I was conscious during the process of writing the stories that no such men had existed in fiction, as far as I then knew, and that it was incumbent on me to do them as much justice as possible. This meant: not objectifying them as fetish objects. No regurgitating cliches (“he lied about his gender/body/sex/what-the-fuck-ever” or, more winningly “he is a man trapped in a woman’s body”). Not constructing these men as freakish, foreign, or objects to be ogled or leered at in fascination. These are just – men. Ordinary men with ordinary lives, who have some similarities in how they grew into their adulthood and being men.

Thus, I used second person to try and address these issues. I tried to strip the divide between a potential cisgender (not transgender) reader and to help them enter into the literal mind and body of this person; to see what he sees; to think what he thinks; to feel as he feels.

More recently, I have fallen in love with the first person, and my directed, specific use of you comes in handy. I always must know who my first person narrator is speaking to, and why. This anchors and directs my narrative, and what the narrator will tell, and how they will tell it. Knowing the you in this case is crucial to the structure, voice, and motivations of the story itself.

But yes. Second person is my jam – and hot damn. It can be incredibly good jam, if you’re willing to go out on that limb, and find ways to use it well.

Now, if you will excuse me, I have to return to procrastinating on the approximately bajillion projects I ought to be doing by watching Michael Fassbender movies. Ciao!

2 responses to “Hot Damn that is My Jam: the Use of the Second Person”

  1. You might be right. Peanut butter and jam. Jam on. It’s a jam, you better believe it.
    You know, there is another aspect to “you” that I use when intending it to actually be first person but expressed in second person. Mostly in poetry.
    The “you” that annoys me is the unspoken you. Drive safe. Command form, hidden “you.” Hidden “you”s are everywhere, always telling you what to do.
    Hot damn, my rebel doesn’t want that jam. you’re right to pull out a magnifying glass and examine this you business. This language is not dead but it is changing. What do you want to keep? Would thee consider my druthers?


    1. I tend to tell my students if it doesn’t link to the main idea or thesis, then get rid of it. I think the same is true in fiction. I want everything to be useful on some level, so if it doesn’t relate to the main theme, or the character development, or plot advancement, it should be pruned immediately. So that’s what I would keep: whatever is useful in a piece of fiction. But if we were talking about language outside of fiction and creative writing, I like that language is so organic and always evolving, so there’s nothing to keep or to axe, really.


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