First, Second, and Third Person
When to use first, second, and third person.
You probably know what it means to write in the first person, but you may not be as confident about using the second- or third-person point of view. Today we’re going to focus on each of these three points of view.
In grammatical terms, first person, second person, and third person refer to personal pronouns. Each “person” has a different perspective, a “point of view,” and the three points of view have singular and plural forms as well as three case forms.
In the subjective case, the singular form of the first person is “I,” and the plural form is “we.” “I” and “we” are in the subjective case because either one can be used as the subject of a sentence. You constantly use these two pronouns when you refer to yourself and when you refer to yourself with others. Here’s a sentence containing both:
I (first-person singular) look forward to my monthly book club meeting. We (first-person plural) are currently reading Never Have Your Dog Stuffed by Alan Alda.
The first-person point of view is used primarily for autobiographical writing, such as a personal essay or a memoir. Academics and journalists usually avoid first person in their writing because doing so is believed to make the writing sound more objective; however, using an occasional “I” or “we” can be appropriate in formal papers and articles if a publication’s style allows it. Joseph M. Williams, author of Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, agrees: “…deleting an I or we does not make the science objective; it makes reports of it only seem so. We know that behind those impersonal sentences are flesh-and-blood researchers doing, thinking, and writing” (1).
Besides “I” and “we,” other singular first person pronouns include “me” (objective case) and “my” and “mine” (possessive case). Plural first person pronouns are “us” (objective case) and “our” and “ours” (possessive case). Those are a lot of forms and cases, so the following example of a sentence that uses the first person--with both singular and plural forms and all three cases--will, I hope, help identify the different uses:
I asked Sam to help me with my Happy New Year mailing, and we somehow got the project done early during the last week of December in spite of our packed schedules. I’m quite proud of us and ended up calling the project ours instead of mine.
For further clarification regarding the eight first-person pronouns just used, here’s a table:
Next: Second Person
You use the second-person point of view to address the reader, as I just did. The second person uses the pronouns “you,” “your,” and “yours.” We use these three pronouns when addressing one, or more than one, person. Second person is often appropriate for e-mail messages, presentations, and business and technical writing (3).
Here are two examples with the second-person point of view.
This is a singular second-person sentence:
Before you go to London, remember to leave your keys under the doormat. I’ll miss you. Sincerely yours, Anna
This is a plural second-person sentence:
Class, you need to be in your seats when the principal arrives. Tom and Jerry, I’m speaking to you as well. By the way, are these comic books yours? (Regionally speaking, in the American South you might hear a teacher say, “Class, y’all need to be in your seats….” “Y’all” is a contraction of “you all.”)
For additional clarification, here’s another table:
(singular & plural)
And now to the third-person point of view.
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.
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.
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.
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 narrators point of view and uses pronouns such as “he,” “she,” and “it”: She saw U2 at the Rose Bowl.
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.
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).