First, let's talk about what the word you means. Now, you might be thinking I already know what this word means. Perhaps you would say something like: "It's simple. It means you, not me, nor us, nor he or she". Or perhaps you would put it more grammatically: "It's the second person - singular and plural". And if you did say something like this you would be right, of course. But there is another meaning, too. This second meaning, although very useful, can cause potential problems in the speaking test. It is what we call impersonal you.
So What is Impersonal You?
Unlike some languages, English does not have a standard impersonal pronoun. However, one option is to use impersonal you. This is when a speaker uses you to refer to people in general and not the person or people they are talking to. Let's consider an example. In the following sentence who is the speaker talking about?
"I've never really believed you should accept what people say at face value"
The you here is undoubtedly impersonal you - it means that all of us, in general, should not automatically accept what other people say. It does not mean that only the listener(s) should worry about doing this. However, there can be ambiguous cases. For example, take a look at the following sentence:
"If you want to study abroad, it is a good idea to prepare."
It could be that either of the meanings of you is intended - either some personalised advice for the listener or a generalised piece of good practice. As an isolated sentence it can be difficult to tell, even for native-speakers. So, as in everything, the context is key. As soon as you add a few words before it, everything becomes clearer:
"Many people say that…if you want to study abroad, it is a good idea to prepare."
More examples of Impersonal You
Here some more examples with an explanation of which you - impersonal you or the plain sense - is likely intended.
1 "Some people say that in the long run you are better off renting rather than buying your home. What do you think?"
The first and second usages are impersonal because they are introduced by the phrase 'some people say that'. The third usage is a straight forward question to the listener about their opinion on the topic.
2 "You only have to go a short way into the countryside to see the effect it is having."
This usage is impersonal you. The phrase 'you only have to + verb' is quite a common construction and is worth learning.
3 "Do you think that you should always obey the law?"
This one is harder. The first usage is a direct question to the listener. The second is slightly ambiguous, but is likely to be taking about obeying the law in a general sense as it would be unusual (and possibly confrontational) to ask someone directly about how lawful they are.
Impersonal You and the IELTS Speaking Test
So how does this affect preparing for the IELTS exam? The importance of knowing about and using impersonal you in the IELTS Speaking Test is that is will help you get a higher score. Part of getting higher band scores in the exam is being able to talk about familiar and unfamiliar topics. Therefore in part 3 the examiner will ask you about more abstract topics. You will be expected to stop talking about yourself and start generalizing about the wider world and you will have to give your opinion on a variety of complex issues. Some candidates fall into the trap of thinking that when examiners ask questions like the first and third examples above they are asking about what the candidate personally does or has done. They are not. In answer to the first question above weaker candidates may say something like "I don't rent my house. I've bought it already. It's better to own your own house" but this will inevitably lead to the examiner asking a follow-up question like "And why is it better to own your own house". So, instead, just use you as impersonal you and say something like the following:
"Well, I think this is based on the idea that you wouldn't have to spend extra money on house maintenance because that responsibility would fall to the property owner and you'd be free to use that money elsewhere but I'm not convinced it's the best idea in the long run".
Before leaving this topic, it is important to note that there are alternatives which, depending on the context, might be less ambiguous. For example, it is possible to use impersonal we interchangeably with impersonal you.
"Should we always obey the law?"
In a few instances they might be appropriate, often when the plural people or similar word has already been used:
"People should work hard and pay taxes. They shouldn't expect to live for free".
*A third alternative option is to use one as in "One shouldn't rush to judgment". But be careful because, unfortunately, this usage has some negative connotations associated with class and privilege and it can sound too formal or academic and alienate the listener.
So what to do?
Simple. Listen out for people using you to refer to impersonal things and use it yourself. Any ambiguity associated with it will become easier to decipher the more you use it. It will become second nature. It is what native speakers do everyday.
Having learnt about the importance of knowing about and using impersonal you in the IELTS Speaking Test, what can you do?
Get into the habit of listening to discussion-based radio programmes or podcasts. They do not necessarily need to be overtly political. While listening try to note any examples of impersonal you or impersonal we, they, and one. Note them down in your notebook or SRS if these are things you like to use. Or simply, note them in your head - as long as you notice them you will be learning them.
Do not worry if you cannot follow the whole discussion. The more you expose yourself to native language use, the easier it will become and the more you will understand.
The BBC is a great place to start: www.bbc.co.uk/sounds
As is NPR: www.npr.org/programs