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First, Second, and Third Person

When to use the first, second, and third person point of view in your writing.

By
Geoff Pope, read by Mignon Fogarty,
January 20, 2011
Episode #259

Page 3 of 3

Third Person

The third person is the most common point of view used in fiction writing and is the traditional form for academic writing. Authors of novels and composers of papers use “he,” “she,” or “it” when referring to a person, place, thing, or idea. The following quotations include the third-person singular subjective cases and are from the opening lines of three novels:

“Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested” (5). “He” is in the singular third-person masculine subjective case.

“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person” (6). “She” is in the singular third-person feminine subjective case.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” (7). “It” is in the singular third-person neuter subjective case.

In addition to having a singular and a plural case, you may have already noticed that the third person has genders and a neuter category.

Third Person

(singular)

Subjective Case

Objective Case

Possessive Case

he (masculine)

she (feminine)

it (neuter)

him (masculine)

her (feminine)

it (neuter)

his/his (masculine)

her/hers (feminine)

its/its (neuter)

                                                                                                                             (8)

This is going to be quite a mouthful of pronouns, but I’m going to try to include all twelve singular third-person pronouns in only three sentences:

He met her at a conference where she was the keynote speaker, and it was odd to him that her laptop had a fountain pen sticker on it, because that was his favorite kind of pen. He had his with him and wondered about hers. “A laptop has its place on a desk or on a lap,” he thought, “but in the pocket near the heart and in the hand a fountain pen has its.”

That was a bit awkward at the end, but there you have it—I mean them, all the pronouns.

And now, before the last chart with the third-person plural with the three cases, here’s a short example with its four pronouns (Don’t write sentences like this; they’re impossible to understand!):

They gave them their gloves because theirs had holes in them.

Third Person

(plural)

Subjective Case

Objective Case

Possessive Case

they

them

their/theirs

(9)

A Reminder Regarding Usage: Agree in Person

When you write in the first person (I, we), don’t confuse your reader by switching to the “second person” (you) or the third person (he, she, it, they, etc.). Similarly, when using second or third person, don’t shift to a different point of view (10). For example, here’s a sentence that switches person in a confusing way:

I enrolled in a fiction-writing workshop for the winter quarter, and you have to complete three stories, each from a different point of view.

The pronouns used in that sentence don’t agree with each other; the writer switched from first person (I) to second person (you). Here’s the correct usage:

I enrolled in a fiction-writing workshop for the winter quarter, and I have to complete three stories, each from a different point of view.

Summary

So remember, simply stated, first person is from the writer's point of view and uses pronouns such as “I”: I saw U2 at the Rose Bowl. Second person is directed at the reader and uses pronouns such as “you”: You saw U2 at the Rose Bowl. Third person is told from an outside narrator's point of view and uses pronouns such as “he,” “she,” and “it”: She saw U2 at the Rose Bowl.

Geoff Pope

This script was written by Geoff Pope, who teaches English at City University of Seattle and can be found online at www.geoffpope.com. The article was edited and read in the podcast by Mignon Fogarty, author of the New York Times bestseller Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

References

1. Williams, J. M. Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers, Inc., 2003, p. 66.

2, 4, 8-9. Good, C.E. A Grammar Book for You and I…oops, Me! Herndan, VA: Capital Books, Inc., 2002, p. 119.

3. Nordquist, R. “Second-person Point of View.” 2010. About.com Guide. http://grammar.about.com/od/rs/g/secondpersonterm.htm (accessed December 23, 2010).

5-7. American Book Review. “100 Best First Lines from Novels.” No date. http://americanbookreview.org/100BestLines.asp (accessed December 23, 2010).

10. Purdue Online Writing Lab. “Using Your Pronouns Clearly.” April 17, 2010. http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/595/1 (accessed December 23, 2010).

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