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Using Stick Figures to Understand First, Second, and Third Person

Gretchen McCulloch from the All Things Linguistic blog shares some interesting perspectives and great tips for remembering the difference between first, second, and third person.

By
Gretchen McCulloch, read by Mignon Fogarty,
June 5, 2014
Episode #419

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If you've ever studied a second language or even spent time with a literature teacher who was fond of grammar, you've probably encountered the terms first, second, and third person. But where do they come from and how do you remember which is which? 

First Person

Let's start with an imaginary universe containing just one person, all alone. 

one person

Now this poor lonely stick figure wants to say something, but it can only talk about things that are present in its universe. This doesn't leave it with a lot of options. The only thing our stick figure can talk about is, well, itself. 

So the lonely stick figure can say, "Hi, I'm a stick figure!" and "I wish I had some food, because my stomach is starting to growl." It can even say happier things like, "Look at me! I'm the coolest stick figure in the whole wide world!" 

But what it can't say is anything about any other people, because there's only one person in this whole imaginary universe. There's only one person to talk about, so all the talking has to happen in the first person, using pronouns such as I, me, and my.

Second Person

What happens if we make our very simple universe a little more interesting by giving stick figure number one a friend? 

one personone person

Now we have two stick figures, and there is so much more they can talk about! 

In addition to all the stuff that the solitary stick figure was able to say about itself, now each of our two stick figures can say things about the other person. 

So maybe the one says to the other, "You didn't happen to bring any food with you, did you?" and then the other one replies "No, sorry, I didn't know you were looking for food, um, please don't eat me." 

Two people mean that you can talk about a second person, using you and your

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