When we refer to point of view in relation to grammar, we are referring to which pronouns a writer has chosen to use in their work. Pronouns are divided into three groups: first person, second person, and third person. Here’s a handy chart to help you keep track of which pronouns belong in what category.
As you can see, different pronouns have different uses, create a different relationship with your reader or give a different impression of you the writer, and they also convey a different level of formality. Therefore, when you are writing an academic paper, it’s important to carefully consider your point of view and what it’s conveying. Depending on the assignment and class you are writing for, some pronouns may not be appropriate for what is expected in that rhetorical situation. Misjudging which pronouns are appropriate can lead to confusion on the part of your reader as well as a lower grade than you might have otherwise received. Lucky for you, this week’s post will help you understand your options and make better choices when matching your point of view to the particular rhetorical situation of the assignment you have.
First person pronouns refer to the writer. Usually, this point of view is reserved for narrative essays or for examples/illustrations where the writer is using their personal experience in a text. Using these pronouns puts the reader’s focus on the author. The tone of a piece which uses this point of view is generally casual or conversational.
Unless you are writing a piece which logically calls for you to use first person or have cleared this choice with your instructor, you should generally avoid using this point of view in most academic texts. Most instructors expect your tone to be more formal than this point of view allows for, and they expect you to use evidence outside your personal experience.
Students often use first person when making statements such as “I believe that we need to consider all of our options before deciding what is right.” There are three first person pronouns in this sentence: I, we, and our. The first one, “I” isn’t needed because it is assumed by your reader that all of the statements in your paper are your thoughts, ideas, beliefs, etc. unless you attribute them to someone else through citations. Adding phrases such as “I think,” or “I feel” to the beginning of your sentences, not only drops your writing into first person which is usually too informal, but it also weakens your stance as a writer. Learning to write more directly and succinctly will help you with your assignments.
Our example from above, which originally took 16 words to express, can be stated using only 8 if them:
“Consider all options before deciding what is right.”
Think of first person this way:
Everything you write about is filtered through the lens of your experience and perceptions of the world around you. Just as you can see the photographer intruding on the view in this picture, so you intrude or overlay yourself into your writing.
Second person pronouns imply that you are talking directly to your reader. This is the most informal point of view out of the three. Unless you are writing a text that you plan on delivering orally, such as a speech for your Oral Communications class or an oral presentation or talk for another class, you should avoid it. Not only is it too informal, but using it can also backfire because you can inadvertently include a reader in a group to which they do not belong and/or possible offend them because they don’t have any vocal or other non-verbal cues to help adequately read your tone.
Again, it is usually fairly easy to edit this pronoun choice out of your writing. It may take rephrasing what you’ve written just a bit, but often you just need to replace the pronoun with the noun it names.
For example, if I write the sentence,”You should consider your pronoun choices more carefully,” who are the “you” and “yours”? Writers? Possibly. Students? More probably. Either could be used to replace the subject “you,” and “their” would then take the place of “yours” since both are pronouns showing possession. We would then have:
“Students need to consider their pronoun choices more carefully.”
Or, we could revise it to eliminate “their” so that the statement is even more direct and have:
“Students need to consider pronoun choices more carefully.”
Either way, we have switched the tone of the sentence to the more formal and academically accepted third person, and have refrained from accidentally including the reader in a group to which he or she may not belong.
Remember, when you use second person point of view, you are involving yourself in a direct discussion with the reader of your text. Sometimes, this may close the gap between you and a reader, but sometimes it feels as if you are pointing a finger in their face. Depending on your purpose, genre, and the occasion for writing, your use of it may not be as successful as Uncle Sam’s.
Third person pronouns are the most formal option when it comes to point of view. This is the preferred choice for most of the academic writing you will do. Instead of putting the reader’s focus on the author (as with first person) or the audience (as with second person), it keeps the focus on the ideas and information being discussed in the work. It also allows you to write with an objectivity that the other two points of view do not allow for and lends credibility to your support. It makes your writing more assertive and gives your work the professional tone that your instructors expect it to have.
Here on the WC blog, we often use first and second person pronouns as the standard. Even though this is an academic blog, and even though you see them used on blogs and other internet forums, that doesn’t mean you should assume that it’s okay to use them in internet-related assignments for class. Again, consider what the assignment is and what your instructor wants you to focus on as well as where your assignment is appearing. These should give you clues as to what point of view you are expected to use.
First, look at where your writing will appear. If you’re writing a discussion post, those tend to be more informal than other writing assignments you might have. So do journal entries. Therefore, using first and second person might be okay. Are you writing a post for a blog or other social media account that can be viewed by people outside your class as well as members of the class? Is your writing supposed to represent the standard of someone who writes in that field? Are you somehow representing your school (the site you are posting on is publicly associated with or linked to the college or its social media sites)? Then it might be expected that your writing be more formal. Your instructor may wish for you to stick to third person.
Secondly, look at the tasks you are asked to perform in your writing. Is the instructor asking you to discuss your reactions to a passage or an idea in the text? Are they asking you to discuss how you see a concept applying to the real world or about your experience with it? Are you reacting to another classmate’s post? Then they will be more likely to accept your using first or second person pronouns. Are you supposed to summarize what you read? Inform your readers or persuade them of something? Are you to include evidence or research in your writing? Any of these situations indicate that your instructor wants you to focus on the information and ideas at hand rather than your personal opinions about them and that they probably expect you to use the more formal third person.
Always be sure to read any guidelines your instructor might have given you, including references to these assignments in the course outline/syllabus. If you have questions about what they expect, be sure to ask!