Points of View: First, Second, and Third Person
A Writing Center Workshop
The term point of view refers to the set of pronouns a writer uses. In this workshop, we will cover:
- Lists of pronouns for first, second, and third person points of view
- When to use specific points of view
- How to avoid mixing points of view in your writing
- How to avoid pronoun-antecedent mismatches
Lists of pronouns for each point of view:
Singular I me my mine
Plural we us our ours
Singular you your yours
Plural you your yours
Singular he him his she her hers it its
Plural they them their theirs
When to use each point of view:
First-person point of view
First-person is typically used in narrative writing. If your professor asks you to write a narrative essay, this means the content of the essay will be based on your personal experience. Some professors may also ask you to write descriptiveessays from your own (first-person) point of view. Application and scholarship essays are typically written in first-person point of view as well.
Second-person point of view
Second-person is not typically used in academic essays because it addresses the audience directly. This can be problematic when you are trying to convince the audience to accept your point of view; using “you” can sometimes backfire and turn the audience against the writer. Additionally, the use of second-person sounds informal, and college-level writing is traditionally formal. You will notice that this handout is written in second-person because it is addressing an audience directly.
Avoid the use of “you” when asking questions of your audience. While asking questions can sometimes be an appropriate writing tactic, doing so without using “you” is rather difficult.
Third-person point of view
Third-person is the most common point of view in academic writing. In college, you are getting acclimated to writing for an intelligent audience that expects you to explicitly support your thesis.
Avoid the use of vague pronouns like “they” and “it” when a specific pronoun is not used in your sentence. For instance, “They say that education is less effective when students are disinterested” has a vague pronoun reference because the audience does not know who “they” are. Replace vague pronouns with specific nouns, such as “Researchers” or “Administrators” for the previous example.
How to avoid mixing points of view
a. Name your audience: When writers are unsure of their audience, changes in point of view can happen easily. Come up with a specific name for your audience members that allows you to address them specifically, like “vacationers,” “Montgomery College students,” or “investment bankers.”
b. Identify the essay’s purpose: The type of essay you are writing can affect the point of view you use. As mentioned above, a narrative or descriptive essay may be written in first-person. A business memo may address someone directly, so second-person would be appropriate. A persuasive or informative essay will like address an audience formally, in which case, third-person should be used.
How to avoid pronoun-antecedent mismatches
Just like subjects and verbs, nouns and pronouns also need to agree. A pronoun-antecedent mismatch (PAM) occurs when a pronoun is plural and an antecedent is singular or vice versa. Look out for PAMs because they are common in spoken English! Here is an example: “Everyone has to take care of their own children.” Everyone is a singular indefinite pronoun, while their is a plural pronoun; therefore, this is a PAM. An appropriate revision would be, “Everyone has to take care of his or her own children” or “People have to take care of their own children.”
a. Use plural nouns. One way to avoid PAMs is by simply using plural nouns like “students,” “writers,” “people,” and “researchers.”
b. Familiarize yourself with singular indefinite pronouns. Knowing which pronouns are considered singular will also help you to avoid PAMs.
Singular Indefinite Pronouns
each anyone anybody anything
either everyone everybody everything
neither someone somebody something
one no one nobody nothing
EXERCISE: TEST WHAT YOU’VE LEARNED
Rewrite the following sentences to stay in the same point of view or to avoid a PAM.
- One of my favorite places to vacation is the beach because you can bask in the sun and float on the waves.
- Students should be allowed to manage the bookstore in order to gain the real-life job experience we need.
- You often have to change your plans in life, which is one of the most important lessons my professor taught the class.
- Neither of my mom’s sisters knows what they are doing.
- Several of the local charities donate to its residents.
- Sue’s driver’s license was about to expire, but by the time she arrived, they were closed.
- It is smart to take notes in class so you can study them later.
- Everybody should just mind their own business!
- We can see that polar bears have taken the brunt of the global warming problem.
- So remember, when deciding for whom to vote, you must always consider their voting record.
Problem with Point of View: Beginner writers usually mix 1st, 2nd, & 3rd person into one paragraph.
Incorrect Example: It can be confusing to the reader if you shift the point of view in your writing (meaning starting in the 3rd person, moving to the 2nd person, then switching back to 3rd).
Increasing one's [3rd person] workload is taxing on both your [2nd person] physical and mental health. Unless someone [3rd person] is in a physically-intensive profession, your [2nd person] body is wasting away while you [2nd person] are working. Additionally, diet [3rd person] also suffers as you [2nd person] spend more time at work. No longer do you [2nd person] have the time to prepare healthy meals at home or even worse, we [1st person] may not have time to eat at all.
Solution: Decide what type of writing project you're working on, and determine what point of view is most appropriate
Correct Examples: Below are samples of properly using point of view for various writing occasions
1st person, indicating a personal experience
I have found that increasing my workload is taxing on both my physical and mental health. Unless I am in a physically-intensive profession, my body is wasting away while I work. Additionally, my diet has also suffered as I have spent more time at work. No longer do I have the time to prepare healthy meals at home or even worse; I sometimes do not have time to eat at all.
2nd person, instructing the reader
Increasing your workload is taxing on both your physical and mental health. Unless you are in a physically-intensive profession, your body is wasting away while you are working. Additionally, your diet also suffers as you spend more time at work. No longer [do you] have the time to prepare healthy meals at home or even worse, you may not have time to eat at all.
3rd person, addressing a general situation
Increasing workloads tax both physical and mental health. Unless a person is in a physically-intensive profession, a body will waste away with inactivity. Additionally, the diet suffers as more time is spent at work because people do not have the time to prepare healthy meals or, even worse, may not have time to eat at all.
Using 3rd person in an essay, but including 1st person to give a personal example as evidence:
As mentioned above it can be appropriate to use 1st person in a formal academic essay ONLY WHEN giving a specific personal experience as a form of argumentative evidence.
Increasing workloads tax both physical and mental health. Unless a person is in a physically-intensive profession, a body will waste away with inactivity. [Begin personal example in 1st person] For example, when I began working as an accountant, I experienced a noticeable decline in my physical health. I found that I could not engage in sporting activities as easily as I had done in the past. [Now that the example has concluded, return to 3rd person] In addition to a decline in physical health, the diet suffers as more time is spent at work because people do not have the time to prepare healthy meals or, even worse, may not have time to eat at all.
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