Person, also called point-of-view, is the grammatical mode a piece of writing takes to identify participants, generally by staying consistent with one form of personal pronoun, such as I, you, or they. In English, there are three options for person/point-of-view:
- First person: The author makes direct self-references.
- Second person: The author makes direct-address references to the reader.
- Third person: The author references others indirectly, typically as a non-participant.
See the table below for the pronouns associated with each person/point-of-view:
|First-person pronouns||I, me, my, mine||we, us, our, ours|
|Second-person pronouns||you, your, yours||you, your, yours|
|Third-person pronouns||he, she, it, him, her, his, hers, its||they, them, their, theirs|
(Note that third-person is the standard form for discussing anything except yourself and the reader. For example, the following terms are third-person: everyone, nobody, dogs, chairs, spaghetti.)
A common error in writing is to shift between the three forms of person in an uncontrolled or unclear way. As an example of this common error, notice the shift in the following sentence from third-person to second-person:
This sentence shifts from third-person (“students”) to second-person (“you”). It should be revised for consistency in person, in either way:
Correct: When students hope for an easy teacher, they better be careful what they wish for.
Correct: When you hope for an easy teacher, you better be careful what you wish for.
Notice that consistency and clarity are the aims here. More important than which type of pronouns you use is that you stay consistent with them once you’ve chosen them, and that you choose the clearest ones. But students often come to college with a more specific question regarding this:
Are you allowed to use I or you in a college essay?
The short answer is yes. Successful student essays often use first- or second-person. Professional, expert, and awarded writers use them all the time. Likewise, this textbook uses them throughout. Referring directly to the reader or to oneself is an extremely important and effective writing tool. Indeed, using personal pronouns–or any other words in the English language–is never wrong in-and-of itself if the words in questions are the most effective choices to express exactly what you mean. However, the problems come when (1) the use of I or you shifts and (2) when the the use of I or you adds unnecessary phrases. Both of these problems create confusion and distraction, causing the writing to become uncontrolled or unclear.
These problems are made worse by the fact that these errors are extremely easy to make, and avoiding them requires careful decision-making, subtle awareness, and disciplined editing. Therefore, some instructors find it best to avoid these problems by forbidding the use of first- or second-person in their students’ essays. If this is the case for you as a student writer, follow your instructor’s rule on that just as you would follow any other guideline on an assignment. The truth is that a proficient writers should have the ability to adapt their expressions to all manner parameters and contexts, for, as always, your writing decisions should be guided by subject, audience, and purpose.
Shifts in Person
The obvious problems with shifting in person/point-of-view are illustrated above. You can notice quickly enough that the following sentence starts in third-person (“students”) and then shifts to second-person (“you”), which adds needless confusion: “When students hope for an easy teacher, you better be careful what you wish for.” In fact, this shift is obvious enough that some automated grammar-checkers can catch it.
But the more complex problems come about when the shifts are subtle: when the pronouns are consistent, but the references to participants still shift. As a subtle example of this error of shifting in person, look carefully at the following sentence:
Notice that the whole sentence remains in second-person, which might seem consistent, but then notice whom the writer means with the pronoun “you.” At first, the writer means “you, the reader,” someone who hasn’t been pregnant in high school. Then with the same word the writer means a different kind of person, “you, the pregnant teen.” This is a shift in the use of person, and it creates confusion.
Controlling the use of person/point-of-view at this level of subtly requires careful awareness and rigor. Again, this is one reason some instructors ban such pronouns.
The use of first-person and second-person often tempts students into adding phrases to their sentences that are needless and distracting. This is especially true when stating claims, such as thesis statements and topic sentences.
I think that the two-party political system in America should be changed.
Since this is trying to make a claim about the two-party system, not about the writer’s own mindset, the phrase “I think that” is needless and should be cut:
The two-party political system in America should be changed.
This problem can get worse: such needless phrases can hide that fact that a sentence has failed to make a claim at all:
In my essay, I am going to tell you about the two-party political system in America.
At first, this might sound like it makes a claim, but if you remove the needless first-person self-references, you can see that it in fact fails to make a claim. All that the sentence really says is this:
This fragment needs additional statements in order to make a claim just as it did before cutting the needless phrases, but at least now that need is more obvious and can be more easily noticed and revised. Thus, revising with a close eye on person/point-of-view usage can be a key strategy to improving writing quality.