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What Is the Difference Between First Person, Second Person, and Third Person?

Writers do not typically use second person in formal writing, though it is common in some technical applications, such as instructions.
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  • Originally Written By: Ken Black
  • Revised By: G. Wiesen
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 23 October 2014
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The use of first, second, and third person creates the perspective or "point of view" of a piece of writing. Writing in first person uses the personal pronouns "I," "we," "me," and "us," and the possessive forms "my," "mine," "our," and "ours;" while second person uses "you," and the possessives "your" and "yours." Third person, on the other hand, uses pronouns such as "he," "she," "it," "they," and "them," along with the possessives "his," "hers," "its," "their," and "theirs." The third person can also have an effect on the verb forms used and writers should choose the proper perspective for different types of writing.

First Person Perspective

If someone speaks or writes in the first person, he or she talks about himself or herself. An example is the simple sentence, “I like movies.” This indicates an expression about the speaker or subject of a sentence from his or her point of view. If the speaker or writer uses a plural, to indicate a group that he or she is a part of, then the sentence would change to, “We like movies.” Writers use "me" and "us" for objects in first person, such as "He gave me a box," and possessive forms such as "my" and "our" express ownership of an object like "I drove my blue car."

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Second Person Perspective

The second person is just the opposite of first person in that instead of referring to “I,” the speaker refers to “you,” as the writer directly addresses the reader. Using the previous examples, in second person they might read, “You like movies,” or "You drove your blue car." Modern English lacks a second person plural pronoun, which has led to the creation of slang words such as "y'all" or "yins" in different regional dialects. Writers do not typically use second person in formal writing, though it is common in some technical applications, such as instructions.

Third Person Perspective

If a person writes in the third person singular, the speaker or writer refers to “he,” “she,” or "it;" though the gender-specific objective forms become "him" and "her." In English, the third person singular in the present tense often changes the verb form, usually by adding the letter “s” to the end of the verb, if it is a regular verb. For example, "I like movies," becomes “He likes movies.” Possessive forms such as "His blue car is not as nice as hers," are fairly simple; "its" can be difficult for some writers who mistakenly add an apostrophe like the word "it's," a conjunction for "it is."

There are two major types of third person writing: limited and omniscient. The limited form means that the "narrator" of a work presents only what a main character knows. In this type of writing, the action typically follows one or more main characters and reveals only the events they see or participate in directly. Omniscient writing, however, can jump between characters and reveal more than what they see, providing the reader with information beyond the scope of the main character's actions.

Academic Writing

Teachers typically advise students in academic courses, or engaging in other types of formal writing, to avoid the second or first person and use third person instead. Most writers consider these perspectives informal and inappropriate for scholarly audiences. They may be acceptable in academic writing if a teacher asks students to provide a personal opinion or experience that is informal in nature.

Professional Use

First person is fairly common in "personal" professional writing, such as someone's memoirs. Some creative works use this perspective to tell a story from the point of view of a character within it. Second person is quite rare in creative writing, though it can draw a reader into a story when used well. In other professional texts, such as corporate documents or product descriptions, writers commonly prefer third person over the other two.

Shifting Perspectives

It is important for a writer to use only one type within a piece of writing and not to shift perspective, which can become confusing for readers. All three might be used together in a few rare situations, such as emails or letters between friends and coworkers. It is not unusual for someone to write in first person to indicate personal opinions or needs, shift to second when addressing the recipient directly, and use third person to discuss someone else.

Other Languages

The major verb change in English perspective is in the third person singular. However, in many other languages, these forms may change nearly every time the grammatical person shifts. Understanding how to use each perspective and form them accurately often distinguishes a new language learner from one who has mastered it.

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Discuss this Article

stygotius
Post 36

Ken Black's explanation of first, second and third person is woolly and not to the point. It's a mish-mosh of something vaguely resembling grammar and narrative technique.

To put it briefly and precisely:

The first person refers to the person speaking.

The second person refers to the person spoken to.

The third person refers to the person or thing spoken about.

This goes for both the singular and the plural.

anon352848
Post 35

This was very helpful. A couple of my friends and I were discussing this yesterday but we were confused on 'second person perspective.' We thought it went:

First person: Main character's perspective.

Second person: Someone else telling the story of the main character.

Third person: No single character's perspective.

But this really cleared it up. Thanks!

anon348459
Post 34

The breakdown of when to use first, second, or third person in the different types of writing will definitely be a great reference guide for me to refer when I begin my own writing. This was extremely helpful.

anon318615
Post 31

I am struggling to figure out what word would be used to replace was, but cannot be is! My story novel seems to be a little of both third and first person because my main character tends to have flashbacks where she is thinking about things that have happened in the past. She tends to think and talk about them in a sense- this tends to lead to me writing these parts in third person, but her actual life (in present time) is written from her point of view such as- "we walked hand in hand toward the ice-cream parlour..." Is that talking in first person? In another part, she describes a scene like this, "They had been driving home from a dinner when it happened..." I figure that was in third person, but now I'm not too sure! Help, please!

anon185940
Post 29

Now I understand the use of first person and third person.

anon154049
Post 28

It helped me understand the difference to 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person writing, but really did not help answer my original question. I was trying to figure out when use of the 2nd person is acceptable and appropriate in business communication.

anon146167
Post 27

wow. now that was amazing. i clearly understand it now.

anon136528
Post 26

In a situation where either first, second or third person could all be acceptable, how does one make the decision in which person to write?

anon130913
Post 25

One would use "one" when referring to an action or something of that sort where the subject is not any particular person. In colloquial speech, people often use the second person in this way, such as, "If you flip the switch, the light will turn on." In this case, it is possible that the speaker actually means that if any person flips the switch, then the light will go on.

In formal works, this usage of the second person is considered inappropriate, and the term "one" is often used, roughly meaning "anyone" or "a person".e

anon103321
Post 20

quite clear, though i would appreciate it if you could include more examples of third person language. Great work though, it is very clear and easy to understand.

anon102745
Post 19

For the person who has everything: a great explanation of writing in the first, second, and third person. Well done.

anon85674
Post 18

When do we use one? I often hear people say, "one would think."

anon79547
Post 17

This post is definitely helpful, with an easy explanation. Thank you.

anon77366
Post 16
anon75840
Post 15

thanks! was really great!

anon73822
Post 14

thanks. this helped a lot!

anon70179
Post 12

I am trying to find out if "he" is a third person reference and "you" is a first person reference.

anon60898
Post 10

I understand it very well.

anon55702
Post 9

Clear and simple. Really understandable.

anon53501
Post 8

very helpful, good work.

anon49187
Post 5

very helpful website. thanks so much!

peety
Post 4

Thank you for a great web site. very helpful.

anon44503
Post 3

I don't get it.

anon41944
Post 2

nice explanation. thanks.

anon39438
Post 1

This is great, thank you very much! It explains very well.

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