The Story Of The Pronoun You

The Story Of The Pronoun You

Let's look at the fascinating history of the pronoun you

I got the idea to write this lesson after some friends and I were talking about the pronoun whom and how it seems that fewer and fewer people know what it's for and how to use it. 

Might whom slip away the same way that thee and thou have? How were thee and thou used, and what happened to them?

Let's start with how we use the word you today.

Modern Standard English - YOU

We use you for both subjects and objects.

You are great. You = Subject

The magician tricked you.  you = Object

We use it as a singular pronoun and a plural pronoun. 

But, you wasn't always this versatile! 

In Old English, which is the earliest form of the English language, you was only a second person plural object pronoun. It wasn't used as a subject.

Old English Pronouns

As time went on, you was used interchangeably with ye for a second person plural pronoun.

Middle English Pronouns

Then, the French influence on English affected how the pronoun you was used. 

Early Modern English Pronouns

In French, you addressed kings and aristocrats (singular people) with plural pronouns. 

English picked up on this and started using you and ye as formal pronouns to address aristocrats. 

That slowly changed to people also using you and ye to address strangers and those with higher social status. Using the plural pronoun for one person was seen to be more polite. 

And then, around the 17th century, we dropped thee, thou and ye, and used simply you for all of those words.

And that brings us back to where we are today!

Modern Standard English Pronouns

There you have it! Language changes over time. I wonder what will happen to whom over the next hundred years. (Psst… If you'd like to know how to use whom you can read this lesson on who vs. whom.)

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Elizabeth O'Brien

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