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How common is it for languages to use second person pronouns as indefinite pronouns in certain contexts? Witness, for example, the following sentence, which, depending on context, could be addressed to a particular listener or to any listener or reader at all, including listeners and readers unknown to the speaker.

"If you drink and drive, you'll go to jail!"

Is this use of the second person pronoun confined to English, or do other languages have it too?

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  • 2
    French and Latin have it too.
    – JPP
    Mar 1 '12 at 9:32
  • 2
    So does Dutch...
    – arjan
    Mar 1 '12 at 21:38
  • 2
    Another person that is often used in a similar indefinite way is the 3rd person plural: they say she is a monster; ze zeggen dat ze een monster is (Dutch); ferunt eam monstrum esse (Latin). But this may be restricted to a certain class of verbs, mainly those that introduce indirect speech, I think. I believe this is also possible in Greek with legousin + a.c.i. And I think Greek can also use the 2nd person singular in our indefinite way, but that is certainly not as common as in English or Dutch. By the way, Dutch is really the worst offender of the bunch. It is often even used for "I".
    – Cerberus
    Mar 2 '12 at 0:16
  • And here I thought "they say she is a monster" means just what it says, that more than one person says she is a monster. Indefinite, sure, but also plural. A better example: "When someone comes through here, make sure they sign this book."
    – Qwertie
    Mar 3 '12 at 19:43
  • @Qwertie: No. That's the singular they; it refers to the specific person that "comes through here". May 28 '12 at 5:02
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Darja (a group of Arabic dialects used in the Maghreb) uses second person pronoun, but with a twist,

In Darja, at first sight, it looks the same way - and for speakers of any one gender, this is true. However, looking at speakers of both genders allows you to realise that the distinction is grammaticalised. Addressee "you" agrees in gender with the addressee; impersonal "you" does not agree in gender with the addressee, but with the speaker. Thus a woman speaking to a man will say tṛuħ "you go" when "you" refers to the man addressed, but tṛuħi when it refers to an arbitrary person, like "When you go by bus, it takes a while."

--Impersonal vs. personal "you", Dr. Lameen Souag

Wikipedia also list Russian as an example. As far as I know, the French uses on (not a second-person pronoun) for this purpose, and formally English uses one.

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  • 2
    French uses both « on » and « tu. » Trying to thing of concrete examples, I find the use of « on » more formal (the sentences sound more like proverbs and less like things I could really say in a discussion).
    – JPP
    Mar 1 '12 at 9:44

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