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

By Ken Black
Updated Feb 07, 2024
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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."

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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Discussion Comments

By anon989430 — On Mar 05, 2015

I just finished writing my second novel. My first one is titled Father; Unknown and is written in the first person from the viewpoint of a high school girl named Lisa Morgan and since I am a man I had to ask my wife a ton of questions on how she thought a female character would react under certain circumstances.

After I completed my first draft and let another female read my novel (not my wife) I found out I was way off base. I had basically written what would have been considered almost a porn novel. I listened to what they had to say and completely re-wrote the novel. Two years and three drafts later and a PG rating I finally got it right.

My second novel is a sequel titled The Line-up. I wrote it in the same first person because I continued on with the same story line and characters. Since I started writing in the first person I think my mind is stuck in that format. I have a third novel in mind and I’m still going to write it in the first person simply because of a habit. Habits are hard to change!

By stygotius — On Aug 05, 2014

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.

By anon352848 — On Oct 25, 2013

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!

By anon348459 — On Sep 17, 2013

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.

By anon318615 — On Feb 08, 2013

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!

By anon185940 — On Jun 13, 2011

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

By anon154049 — On Feb 19, 2011

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.

By anon146167 — On Jan 25, 2011

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

By anon136528 — On Dec 22, 2010

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?

By anon130913 — On Nov 30, 2010

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

By anon103321 — On Aug 11, 2010

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.

By anon102745 — On Aug 09, 2010

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

By anon85674 — On May 21, 2010

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

By anon79547 — On Apr 23, 2010

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

By anon77366 — On Apr 14, 2010

thanks.

By anon75840 — On Apr 07, 2010

thanks! was really great!

By anon73822 — On Mar 29, 2010

thanks. this helped a lot!

By anon70179 — On Mar 12, 2010

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

By anon60898 — On Jan 16, 2010

I understand it very well.

By anon55702 — On Dec 09, 2009

Clear and simple. Really understandable.

By anon53501 — On Nov 22, 2009

very helpful, good work.

By anon49187 — On Oct 18, 2009

very helpful website. thanks so much!

By peety — On Oct 07, 2009

Thank you for a great web site. very helpful.

By anon44503 — On Sep 08, 2009

I don't get it.

By anon41944 — On Aug 18, 2009

nice explanation. thanks.

By anon39438 — On Aug 01, 2009

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

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