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.
Points of View in Writing
There are three different points of view that can be used in writing: first person, second person, and third person. In academic writing, the third person point of view is usually clearer and allows a writer to come across as more credible. Due to this and other reasons, the third person point of view is considered the best in academic writing.
First person occurs primarily through the use of the pronoun “I.” This is the point of view used when a writer is writing about himself. There may be times when it is okay to incorporate personal examples into an essay, and if so, the first person will be used. However, it is generally best to avoid referring to yourself, as the writer. Statements like “I believe” or “I think” tend to weaken writing and are better when written in the third person. (example: “The U.S. government needs to pass this law” is better and stronger than “I believe the U.S. government needs to pass this law.”)
Second person involves the use of the pronoun “you” to refer to the reader. There are few times to use the second person in academic writing, as it can alienate the reader. Let’s look at the following example:
- All beginning college students should learn how to write well. Doing so will allow you to do better in school, and you will receive better grades.
Notice the shift that occurred from the first sentence, which is written in the third person, to the second sentence, which is written in the second person. This second sentence alienates readers who are not beginning college students since the information does not pertain to them. However, if the second sentence is written in the third person, even people who are not beginning college students can keep reading and learn from the essay:
- Revised: All beginning college students should learn how to write well. Doing so will allow them to do better in school and receive better grades.
Third Person involves directly stating who is being written about without using the words I, me, we, us, or you. In the example above, the use of both college students and they keeps this writing in the third person.
To clarify, here are examples of sentences written in the various points of view:
First person: I should learn how to write well.
Second person: You should learn how to write well.
Third person: College students should learn how to write well.
As mentioned earlier, most academic essays should be written almost entirely in the third person. The second person should be avoided, and the first person should only be used when using personal examples that help support claims made in the essay. In addition to enhancing credibility, another reason to write primarily in the third person is because frequent changes in point of view can create confusion for the reader.