Just "Your" Typical Worker?

"Your"? Does that belong to ME? In an article for Inc. Magazine, Steve Tobak was writing about personal styles in the workplace and used the following sentence:

Melissa's your average, everyday worker.

Non-native readers may be asking, "Why 'your'? She doesn't belong to me!"

In fact, Tobak would have been perfectly fine to write about "a" typical worker. But he didn't.  Why not? This is actually a common way of speaking in American English.

The following is an explanation taken from a clever colleague, journalist Lisa McLendon:

Who, me?

Who, me?

This is a casual expression. Even though it's fine to say "an" average worker, the word "your" indicates a less-formal sentence. It translates as "what you would consider an average, everyday worker" (where "you" means "one" or "a person in general"). This would be found more in speech than writing. In professional writing, it would be "an."

An example: In a news story about a new restaurant, the owner tells the reporter, "We didn't want to be your typical sports bar." If the reporter uses the quote directly, there is no change.  However, if the reporter paraphrases the owner, the article would say, "The owner said he didn't want Bases to be a typical sports bar."

An equally clever colleague, linguist Matthew Kushinka pointed out that "your" in such expressions is always paired with ordinary words: usual, average, typical, run-of-the-mill, regular, basic. • They're nothing special, just your basic printing company. • You didn't miss anything.  It was your typical weekly staff meeting. • You'll like working with Teresa.  She's not your run-of-the-mill intern. In such expressions, "your" is never paired with extraordinary adjectives.  You never see "He's (not) your fantastic employee."

Today's tip for second-language speakers: If you hear "your," it may not be all about you!

image: Fotolia.com

Cultural footnote: The now-discontinued line of GM cars, the Oldsmobile, tried to revive its image as a boring, conservative car by coming up with a new marketing line: "This is not your father's Oldsmobile." General Motors wanted to say, "This is not a typical old person's car."  The advertising backfired, and now this line of GM cars is extinct.

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.