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. TC mark

More From Thought Catalog

  • http://www.oneyearintexas.com Perfect Circles

    We really hit on something here.

  • Sophia

    This is really perceptive and oh so relevant here on Thoughtcatalog. Great job.

  • aat

    The subject matter is so relevant! The text itself is delightfully self-aware. Great piece, Adam.

  • Lauren

    META

  • Griffith Gray

    I was amused seeing this on thoughtcatalog. You were also amused seeing this on thoughtcatalog.

  • Anonymous

    Nicely done.

    This could have been phoned in and probably would have been funny, just because of the premise, but you took the time to be thoughtful about it and ended up with something really good.

    I liked your last article, too. Look forward to seeing more of your stuff — hopefully a piece a little bit longer!

  • Joe

    You seem intelligent and clever, but god damn, this is a waste of an article. Being witty like this isn’t a challenge; you’re creating an nonexistent problem based on a writing style that you have either missed the point of or knowingly misrepresented. I’m guessing the latter is the case, since you’re obviously a more than competent writer.

    The point of a second person piece is to drive home personal experience or emotion. It isn’t supposed to imply that “you” (the reader) is feeling the same way the author does, it’s supposed to make you feel it. Obviously it isn’t intended for academic purposes; no one writes in the second person academically, and if they do, they’re probably not included in the “you” of the second sentence. The second paragraph is just an outlet for more word play, which I get, but it doesn’t lend anything to your point, aside from another example of the common uses of the second person.

    When it comes down to it, the second person is such a comfortable voice because it is the easiest to relate to. It makes it personal. It fosters a sense of understanding between the author and reader, making them feel more in touch with one another and therefore the overall message or theme of the piece. In reading your article, I almost felt as if you had to know this. You have talent, and that does not come without a certain understanding of language and voice. I felt like you took a cheap shot at something that you understood but other people didn’t, and it bled through. I appreciate the humor and wittiness of it, but I felt like you wrote down to an audience that is below you.

    Or maybe you just made me think about all that on purpose by writing about the second person, in which case, right on.

    • Anonymous

      I disagree that this is a waste of an article. Being this witty is a challenge; it’s a peculiar meta-topic to address in the first place. You say that Adam’s missed the point of second person writing, or knowingly misrepresented it, but I think his point is that people use the second person identifier “you” in a variety of settings. I am no English major, but I know that the proper second person voice is the kind of “you” that is used in the worst kind of erotica. Another kind is used in hypnosis. I don’t think that your comment qualifies as second person because you are directly addressing Adam (and I, you). The second person voice that Adam simultaneously describes demonstrates is the “you” that is both universal and characterized by that beautiful perceptiveness enabled by the Internet age:

      “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.”

      This kind of second person voice is supposed to imply that the reader and author feel the same because it speaks to “our shared humanity.” It’s not the voice of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. This voice is less removed, less authoritative – more personal, as you say. Actually what you say is that “It isn’t supposed to imply that you are feeling the same way the author does, it’s supposed to make you feel it,” but in an age of Twitter followers and Facebook likes, we are definitely accustomed to feeling through vicarious experience.

      I’m not sure why you assumed people didn’t understand this if you were able to grasp that he’s a talented writer. Nor am I sure why you think it’s a weakness that the premise of this article bled through; it’s supposed to – it’s incredibly reflexive. Only you and Brandon had complaints, and you both had to understand Adam’s writing enough to make them, so I would say it’s a successful piece against your claim that Adam is writing down to an audience below him.

      I may as well add that I write in the second person academically and get along just fine.

  • Tom

    this is about ryan o’connell….

  • Brandon

    …this reads like a walk through someone’s thought process. poorly written, sophomoric poetics, ultimately goes nowhere.

    • John Dowland

      Let’s have a long, hollow, and pointless argument right now.

      This is the last paragraph (which you are
      presumably referring to when you say “ultimately goes nowhere”?):

      “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.”

      Basically you have to read it bearing in mind that he is using the very tense that he critiques. The same goes for the whole article. It is a demonstration, and it is supposed to rankle you.

  • John Dowland

    Adam Detzner – yes. Let us now close up shop. Sincerely,  a funny little man who happens to be twenty-something but is hardly a “twentysomething.”

  • Alisa B.

    My geeky self thought that the summary in the link to this article was funny…

  • Rishtopher

    “And how sentences usually shouldn’t begin with “and.” To avoid fragments.”

    I see what you did there. Yes, this did make me laugh.

  • beatrice

    Good article though I do have to agree with a previous comment that I don’t exactly agree with your arguments, perceptive tho.  I would love to see you write more articles like this here on TC, it would also be nice if more writers on TC wrote thought-provoking articles instead of those that just elicit a feeling (nothing wrong with that tho).

  • Bell

    “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.”

    I don’t necessarily agree with this article, but I thought the above was hilarious.

  • http://twitter.com/iamsubmerged Jordana Bevan

    i fucking love this. felt the distant/intimate tone change in the final paragraphs, actually felt it (i’m a little drugs though). but wow

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