Pronoun Bending


Sociology 220: Research Methodology 

Instructor: Roger Albert


Yvette Cowan[1]

Bridget McGowan

Deanna McRae

Sandra Deutch

Teliah Volick

April 2006


The present study explores the use of what we call pronoun bending: the switch in English conversation from the use of the indexical singular-personal pronoun ‘I’ to the indefinite pronoun ‘you,’ as it seems both common and unwarranted. Thus, we seek to determine how often it occurs in natural communications and what social purpose it fulfills. Over one hundred individual incidents of pronoun bending were recorded and analyzed.  The ‘benders’ included students, sports figures, civil servants, celebrities and military veterans. The research was in three phases: first we engaged in strictly archival research, then we administered questionnaires to a small group of college students, and then we conducted face-to-face interviews. The research reveals that pronoun bending is a common socio-linguistic mechanism used to avoid social alienation and cement the bonds between the individual and the collectivity.


Our exploratory research began with the observation noted by one of us

that people in television, radio, and published interviews often switch from the use of the singular-personal pronoun ‘I’ to the second-person pronoun ‘you’ when such a habit seemed unwarranted. After a preliminary and mostly fruitless literature-review searching for information making even vague reference to this yet undefined phenomenon we found two relevant articles by Eric Hyman and Harry Senger.  

The article by Hyman, entitled “The Indefinite ‘You,” which was published in the Journal of English Studiesin 2004 confirms that using the indefinite ‘you’ is ‘youbiguitous’[2]. He suggests that it serves a number of social purposes, among them distancing ego from accusations of excessive individualism, or self-promotion, and generalizing beyond ego, so as to reaffirm unconsciously (as Hyman notes) the importance of the collectivity for all of us. Similarly, Senger (1963), views the indefinite ‘you’as having adaptive and defensive forms.[3]As a psychiatrist, Senger is interested in the indefinite ‘you’ as a coping mechanism, which can include a means of diluting anxiety. Based on the insights gained from Hyman, Senger and others (Mühlhäusler and Harré, 1990; Wales, 1996) on the linguistic dimensions of the switch from the indexical ‘I’to the indefinite ‘you,’ we hypothesize that pronoun bending is a common socio-linguistic mechanism used to avoid social alienation and cement the bonds between the individual and the collectivity.

Our conception of pronoun bending begins from these theorists’ analyses of the indefinite ‘you’and expands upon them.  We define pronoun bending as a socio-psycho-linguistic process that occurs within individuals’ daily conversation.  English-speaking societies are to varying degrees individualistic[4], a trait that is bound to be reflected in how an individual positions himself or herself in communications[5]. Therefore, we conceptualize the starting point of pronoun bending at the point in conversations when speakers use the indexical pronoun ‘I.’ As Kashima and Kashima state, this starting position permits an individual to present him- or herself as the subject of communication[6].  Then, when the individual unconsciously perceives s/he has extended self-focus beyond acceptable social limits modesty and humility are activated. Finally, the individual switches from the single, indexical pronoun ‘I’to the socially responsible/committed indefinite pronoun ‘you.’ 

Figure 1: Process of Pronoun Bending 

Standing outTension Stress Anxiety ModestyConforming Treading lightly Tension releaseSharing-bonding Solidarity 

Other work relevant to our research is Becker’s book Escape from Evil.  Following Otto Rank, Becker notes the importance of the collectivity for the individual’s search for immortality.  According to Becker, heroism has its rewards, but ultimately, he asserts that sticking one’s head out (self-aggrandizing) too far runs the risk of having it chopped-off[7]. In contemporary terms, bragging or public displays of conceit can result in an individual being cut-off from the group or of being ostracized. Or, as another relevant theorist, Zali Gurvitch, asserts, the tension between heroism and self-effacement is expressed linguistically when conversation changes directions so that the individual “disown[s] oneself and swerve[s] toward the Other[8].” Hence, utilizing pronoun bending is a socio-linguistic mechanism used to avoid social alienation.  Pronoun bending can serve to emphasize the individuals’ unconscious inclusion and reliance on the collective for life and well-being. 


The research involved four separate phases: Literature review, archival research, pilot-testing, and face-to-face interviews. The outline of the methods used for our research will include the last three: archival research, questionnaire administration, and interviews. 

Archival Research 


We began our research with observations of the phenomenon of pronoun bending in everyday life and found a wealth of information on-line including transcribed interviews on the CBC website, archival data collected from transcribed interviews on-line and Canadian military veterans’ (World War I) interviews, also available on the internet.  We divided these latter interviews into two groups involving veterans with frontline and backline experiences.


Purposive sampling was used to obtain a sample representative of heroes in society. Veterans were chosen as they embody the potentiality for heroism and personify the tenuous balance necessary for heroism, that is between self-focused action and the expectations of the collectivity (his unit and more broadly his country). The transcribed interviews of seven WWI veterans were analyzed: five (5) with frontline experiences, two (2) with backline experiences. Technically, we sought out transcribed interviews of people recognized as heroes for their acts of individual bravery or prowess (which we define socially as self-sacrificial defense of the collectivity) within a context of service to the collectivity.


Each transcribed interview was analyzed for individuals’ use of the indefinite ‘you’. A simple counting method totaling overall use of the indefinite ‘you’ in each interview was used. 



Convenience sampling was used in order to obtain a heterogeneous sample. Participants included thirty-eight (38) students: twenty-eight (28) females, nine (9) males, and one (1) unknown.  


In order to produce data, two interactive/self-report methods of questionnaires were constructed with six (6) and eight (8) open- ended questions (See Appendix A). Questions were constructed to stimulate sufficient psychological anxiety in order to provoke pronoun bending. We attempted to identify, categorize, and label these questions according to the underlying cause of anxiety. It was determined that the questions represented a challenge to group versus individual identity, the heroic identity (which separates one from the group), the issues of justification of individual beliefs and social cohesion, and a question focused on group membership. This part of our research sought to determine if Hyman was correct, and attempted to isolate possible communication triggers that might elicit using the indefinite ‘you’. 


The two questionnaires were handed-out to the students in a Sociology class at North Island College. Minimal information was provided until the students had completed the questionnaires. The questionnaires were collected and the data were quantified using a simple counting method. Each completed questionnaire was tabulated for total use of the indefinite ‘you’



Again, a purposive sampling was used in selecting a hero type participant. Firefighters were selected, as they fit the modern conception of heroes. Five firefighters were interviewed, four males and one female. The participants ranged in age from nineteen to forty years of age. 


One interviewer conducted and recorded five (5) face-to-face interviews. Twenty-nine standard questions were asked each interviewee (See Appendix B). The average interview duration was thirty-minutes.


The interviewer conducted face-to-face interactive interviews in the participants work environment. The participants were informed that their interviews were being recorded for transcription and analysis. The participants were not informed of the full implications of the research until the completion of their interviews.

Once all the interviews were completed, they were transcribed and tabulated. The first portion of the tabulation involved the same simple counting method utilized above for the archival research and the questionnaires. Then, usage of the ‘indefinite ‘you’ was broken down and assigned to one of four categories: guilt, deviance, heroism and anxiety .


First, archival data collected from transcribed WWII veterans’ on-line interviews were analyzed for individuals’ use of the indefinite ‘you’. A simple counting method totaling overall use of indefinite ‘yous’ in each interview was used. This universe included seven (7) WWI veterans: five (5) frontline soldiers, two (2) backline soldiers. All the veterans used the indefinite ‘you’. Supporting our exploratory hypothesis, we found that those veterans retelling frontline experiences had higher levels of usage than those veterans retelling backline experiences did. While not conclusive, our findings indicate that there is likely a positive association between individual experiences of high anxiety and increased use of pronoun bending (See graph 1, below). 

Graph: 1

Second, questionnaire data from the first-year university students was tabulated utilizing the same counting method as above. The universe included 38 students: 28 females, 9 males, and 1 incomplete unknown. Overall analysis of the written data revealed that there was a limited use of the indefinite ‘you’ in the written format, at 37%. However, further analysis of these same written data revealed a gender difference. The data revealed that fifty percent of the females utilized the indefinite you, whereas their male counterparts did not use it at all-0% (See Table 1, below).

Table: 1

Third, face-to-face interview data were collected from the five (5) firefighters. While not conclusive, a positive correlation was found to be associated with youth and pronoun bending. The 19 year old used the indefinite ‘you’ 99 times, whereas the 40 year old used it only 16 times (See Table 2, and graph 3). While not definitive, there was also a possible positive association found between increased pronoun bending and increased anxiety (See graph 2).  Authority (and the confidence that goes along with it) must also play an important role, but that is beyond the scope of this research to assess.

Graph: 2

Graph: 3 

 Table: 2


The original questions we asked included what purpose/s does pronoun bending serves  for an individual, how often does it occur, in what context, and importantly, whether or not it is the result of socialization To contextualize[9]our research, we postulated that the bend has an association with Becker’s conception of heroism[10]. This research revealed that pronoun bending is a standard communicative bi-product of social forces manifested during ‘natural’ communications in English that is associated with youth and increased levels of anxiety. 

The current research supports Hyman’s psycholinguistic claim that use of the indefinite ‘you’is “youbiquitous[11].” We examined interview transcripts of members of society who stuck-out, such as war veterans, fire fighters, sports figures and celebrities and bending was pervasive.  In both written and face-to-face communication, our research participants utilized the indefinite ‘you.’ Also our face-to-face interviews proved fruitful in providing some support to Senger’s claim that use of the indefinite ‘you’is a psychological defense mechanism used by younger, less confident individuals[12]. Further, the firefighter interviews revealed that pronoun bending, switching from ‘I’to the indefinite ‘you’, is also associated with anxiety. 

Based upon our preliminary findings, we believe that it is highly probable that  constructing a trigger for eliciting a pronoun bend on cue is possible. As the questionnaires produced gender related differences in responses, it would be interesting to explore how and in what manner women and men utilize this socio-linguistic mechanism differently and if it is associated with different levels of social duress.  Building upon our finding, that an extended and exaggerated self-focus is a key to pronoun bending, determining ‘how long an individual can sustain self-aggrandizement before pronoun bending occurs would be a next obvious step in researching this phenomenon. 

In closing, as predicted, we found pronoun bending to be ‘youbiquitous.’ And, that it is a coping mechanism that serves to balance individuals’ often conflicting communal and personal interests. Our findings illustrate that although self-esteem is a most sought-after quality in our English-speaking society self-aggrandizement is not generally valued as a personal characteristic. The daily dance we perform between our need to be individual (and avoid drowning in the undifferentiated collective mass) and our need to belong to a group is clearly reflected in the use of the indexical I and the indefinite YOU.  

Appendix A

Questionnaire 1:

1.   What is your sex? Please check the box next to your selection.

 Female Male Other

2.   What is your age?   I am ________ years old.

3.   Do you personally feel that people should be responsible for one another or should people be responsible for themselves only? Answer in the space below. No single answer responses please.  

        Justify and explain your response to question 3 in the space below.  

4    You are the first to come across and accident scene where someone is severely injured and bleeding badly.  You know first aid, however you don’t have any protective gloves on you. Knowing the risk of blood-borne diseases, would you

      a.   administer first aid, possibly mouth-to-mouth or attempt to stem bleeding?

      b.   wait until help arrived, knowing the person could possibly die in the meantime?

5.   Supposing you ‘saved’ someone’s life by doing aabove and people started calling you a hero, how would you react to that?

6.   If you chose babove and people started blaming you for not taking action, would you feel guilty about it?

Questionnaire 2 (QS2):

1.   What is your sex? Please check the box next to your selection.

 Female Male Other

2.   What is your age?   I am ________ years old.

3.   Do you think that it is morally wrong to lie to someone in order to spare his or her feelings?

      Answer in the space below. No single answer responses please.

4.   If you answered yesto 3 and you told the truth to someone that proved devastating to them,

      how would you react to them when they confronted you about it?

5.   If you answered noto 3 and you did lie to someone to spare their feelings and they found out about it and confronted you angrily about it, how would you justify your actions to them?

6.   The initiation ritual of a group you want to join is particularly humiliating.  However you really want to be part of the group.  Do you go through with it and suffer the humiliation or do you abandon your interest in the group (and possibly put up with charges of cowardice)? 

7.   If you answer yesto 6 above (you would go through with it) and when you are part of the group do you impose the humiliation on others or do you try to get the practice changed or abolished? 

8.   If you answered noto 6 above (that is, you abandon your interest in the group) how would you react to charges of cowardice?

Appendix B 


Interview Questions

Part 1: General Info: 





5.How long have you been a firefighter?

6.Why did you want to join the fire department?

Part 2: Group Solidarity / Team Work

7.Do you feel accepted by other members of the fire hall? 

8.What do you enjoy most about being part of the fire department?

9.Why do you think teamwork is important for firefighters?

10.What are some of the possible consequences of fire fighters not working as a team?

11.How do you feel when someone doesn’t pull their own weight?

12.How important do you feel it is to trust your fellow fire fighters? 

13.What do you think could be the potential consequences of working with a fire fighter you did not trust?  

14.Are there any people you feel should not be accepted into our fire hall, and if so        why?                                                                                                    

Part 2: Sticking Out

A. Deviance:

15. Gossip:  

  1. You find out that one of the fire fighters at the hall you thought you were on good term with has been spreading negative gossip about you.  How would you deal with this?  Would you confront them about it?  What would you say?
  2. b. Do you feel its important to avoid negative gossip?

16. Sexual Harassment:  

  1. With members of the opposite sex, where do you draw the line between joking and sexual harassment?  
  2. b.What do you think the fire hall’s position on sexual harassment should be? 

17. Freelancing:  

  1. Why do you think chain of command is important?  
  2. b.What do you think is the appropriate course of action in dealing with a fire fighter who continuously disregards the chain of command?

18. Theft: What would you do if you witnessed a fellow firefighter placing items from a private residence in his or her pockets?  

B. Heroism:


  1. Do you think that you are a good fire fighter?
  2. b.Do you think that you are a better fire fighter then other members of the hall?

20. Reintegration:

  1. Do you think that fire fighters with more experience should always be given more responsibility then less experienced fire fighters?
  2. b. At a first responder call, you and the other first responders work together and manage to successfully resuscitate a patient with no pulse.  Afterwards, the patient starts calling you, and only you, their hero. How would you respond to their praises?

Part 3: Anxiety Producing Situations:  Helplessness and Guilt  

The following questions are based on an article published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry investigating the psychological responses of fire fighters to traumatic stress.

21.In this situation you are not acting as a first responder.  You are the first to come across an accident scene where someone is severely injured and bleeding badly.  You know first aid, however you don’t have any protective gloves on you.  Knowing the risk of blood-borne diseases, would you:

a.administer first aid, possibly AR or attempt to stem the bleeding?  (Hero)

b.wait until help arrived, knowing the person could possibly die in the meantime?    (Self-preservation)  

  • Supposing you ‘saved’ someone’s life by doing aabove and people started calling you a hero, how would you react to that?  (Self-effacement)
  • If you chose babove and people started blaming you for not taking action, would you feel guilty about it?  (Defensiveness)

22.You arrive at the scene of a car accident in which the car has crashed into a telephone pole.  The patient in the car is screaming for help, but you are unable to reach them due to live electrical wires down across the road. By the time BC Hydro arrives and you are able to reach the patient, they’ve lost a lot of blood and have gone unconscious.  You do everything you can for them, but find out afterwards that the patient ended up dying in hospital. 

  • How would this make you feel? (Guilt) 
  • Would you somehow feel responsible for their death?  (Defensiveness)

23.You are assigned interior attack at a house fire. The order to evacuate has sounded due to imminent structural collapse. However, you have been told there is a child in the building.  Would you:

a.continue searching hoping to rescue the child?  (Hero)

b.Evacuate the building to avoid injury?  (Self-preservation)

  • If A, how would you justify disobeying a command?  (Defensiveness)
  • If B, suppose you found out later that the child in the building had died.  How would you feel?  (Projection)

24.You arrive at the scene of a first responder call where a forty year old male is in cardiac arrest.  You initiate CPR and connect the AED, but are unable to get a pulse. Later, you learn that the man was pronounced dead in hospital.

  • How would this make you feel? (Guilt)
  • Would you feel in any way responsible?  (Defensiveness)

25.You and a partner are on interior attack at a house fire.  Your partner is injured due to falling debris.  You attempt to drag them out, but they are very heavy and you are unable to move them very far.  You’ve lost your radio and are unable to call for help.  You are starting to run low on air.  Would you:

a.not leave your partner and keep attempting to drag them out, knowing that you had only a little air left? (Hero)

b.leave your partner and exit the building?  (Self-preservation)

  • If A, why wouldn’t you leave your partner?
  • If B, how would you feel if your partner became seriously injured or died as a result? (Guilt)

26.What do you do to mentally prepare yourself when going to the scene of an accident or fire?

27.How do you deal with high stress incidents?  

28.Have you ever been to a critical incident stress debriefing?  

  • If so, did you find it helpful? 
  • Why or why not?

29.Do you ever experience anxieties that you aren’t capable of handling the situations you might come across fire fighting?  How do you deal with these anxieties?

Thank You For Your Time

[1]Cowan is the principal author of this paper.

[2]Hyman, Eric, “The Indefinite ‘You,” English Studies, 2004, P.161-167

[3]Senger, Harry, L.,  “The Indefinite ‘You’- A Common Defense Mechanism,” Comprehensive Psychiatry, Vol. 4 No. 5 (October), 1963, P.358-363.

[4]Kashima, E, & Kashima, Y., “Culture and language: the case of cultural dimensions and personal pronoun use,” Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, May 1998 V. 29 No. 3, P.461-478.

[5]Mulhausler and Harre, Pronouns and People, 

[6]Kashima & Kashima, P.461-478.

[7]Becker, Ernest, Escape From Evil, 

[8]Gurvitch, Zali, “The Possiblity of Conversation,” The Sociology Quarterly, Vol. 36, Number 1, pages 97-109.

[9]Mulhausher & Harre, People and Pronouns, 


[11]Hyman, “The Indefinite ‘You,” English Studies, 2004, P.161-167

[12]Senger, Harry, L.,  “The Indefinite ‘You’- A Common Defense Mechanism,” Comprehensive Psychiatry, Vol. 4 No. 5 (October), 1963, P.358-363.