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When discussing books in a formal essay, is it more appropriate to use "the reader" or "the readers"? For example:

Like a true anthropologist, Bill Bryson takes [readers / the reader] on a highly informational journey.

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migrated from english.stackexchange.com Dec 7 '11 at 20:56

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You forgot the third alternative: the readers –  Richard Rodriguez Dec 7 '11 at 20:06
    
What! No "accepted" answer yet? –  Kris Dec 13 '11 at 8:18

4 Answers 4

Generally, in a formal essay, it is preferable to eliminate phrases such as "the readers". "The readers" is fairly vague, and too inclusive. It is a weasel word; as it lends a greater sense of agreement then actually is present (all of "the readers" haven't necessarily felt like they have gone "on a highly informational journey"; you only know that you, the writer felt like you have).

"The reader" is also bad usage in a formal essay. In academic writing, the first person (I) is avoided because the logical merits of an essay stand on their own, without the author. "The reader" essentially means "I", but with the added implication that any sensible reader would agree with you; this is not necessarily the case.Talking about yourself in the first person is to be avoided in an essay, but talking about yourself in the third person also ought to be avoided. Instead, write only in terms of the story, characters, or the author.

Instead, I would simply say something like "the author wrote a highly informational journey".

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I agree with John M Lawler.

In this particular case, I think it definitely is:

Like a true anthropologist, Bill Bryson takes the reader on a highly informational journey...<

The reader is a 'role' corresponding to 'the writer' (Bill Bryson).

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3  
I like "the reader" too, but I think as long as you're consistent, you can do either. –  Lauren Ipsum Dec 8 '11 at 18:46

It sounds most fluid as "readers".

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In this case, you're using Generic noun phrases. Either one works -- in fact, you could say a reader just as easily here -- but there are some subtle differences among them that you might want to consider.

The Definite Generic refers to the Prototype of a species, roughly the image we associate with reader. The reader, as a prototype, has all the properties of anyone we would call a reader, except that they doesn't exist in an individual physical sense, like all real readers do. This is a very abstract concept, and its use signals that the speaker is theorizing.

  • The reader enjoys it

means the speaker believes that enjoying it, in the relevant context, is a characteristic property of readers, that we should expect this to be true of any reader.

The Plural Generic refers to the Norm of a species over its individuals, as perceived, of course, by the speaker, who is unlikely to have conducted reader surveys, so the "statistics" here are very vague and impressional.

  • Readers enjoy it

means the speaker believes that, on the average, any reader is likely to enjoy it. This doesn't mean all readers will, though that's close. This is potentially a less abstract concept, since its use implies a generalization based on experience of several individuals.

These are very similar, and it may not make much difference for your purposes. More discussion here.

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