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Point of View

When is third-person point of view used?

Third person is used when a degree of objectivity is intended, and it is often used in academic documents, such as research and argument papers. This perspective directs the reader’s attention to the subject being presented and discussed. Third person personal pronouns include he, she, it, they, him, her, them, his, her, hers, its, their, and theirs.

The first person—“I,” “me,” “my,” etc.—can be a useful and stylish choice in academic writing, but inexperienced writers need to take care when using it.

There are some genres and assignments for which the first person is natural. For example, personal narratives require frequent use of the first person (see, for example, "Employing Narrative in an Essay). Profiles, or brief and entertaining looks at prominent people and events, frequently employ the first person. Reviews, such as for movies or restaurants, often utilize the first person as well. Any writing genre that involves the writer’s taste, recollections, or feelings can potentially utilize the first person.

When is second person point of view used?

Second person point of view is often used for giving directions, offering advice, or providing an explanation. This perspective allows the writer to make a connection with his or her audience by focusing on the reader. Second person personal pronouns include youyour, and yours.

Examples of sentences written from the second person point of view:

  • You should put your cell phone in the trunk if you want to resist the temptation to use it while you are driving.
  • When you write an academic paper, keep in mind that the appearance of your paper can make a positive or negative impression on your reader.

The Beginning of Your Journey

You are writing for a class.  You realize that you have no idea what point-of-view is appropriate for this piece of writing.  You quickly text a friend but discover that she does not know.  Your teacher is currently teaching subject/verb agreement to a nest of talking dragons and is not available.  Desperate for help, you head into the forest to the fabled Point-of-View Castle. Dodging past giant spiders, enormous werewolves, and cute little pixies (who are surely up to no good), you arrive at the castle to discover that you can choose from one of three bridges across a moat filled with ravenous alligators. On each bridge stands a wizard who wants to talk to you.  All three wear long, flowing robes and have the required gray beards and mystical staffs of power. Each robe has a word written on it. What do you do?

What is a vague pronoun reference?

A pronoun is a part of speech that can replace a noun; its antecedent is the person, place, or thing to which the pronoun refers. A vague pronoun reference might include words such as it, that, this, and which, and can leave the reader wondering what or to whom the pronoun refers. Writers who strive for clarity in their work should be certain that each pronoun has a specific antecedent.

Understand when the first person is preferable to second or third person.

"Do not use the first person" is perhaps the most unfortunate writing myth that handicaps inexperienced writers. After all, how can we think without using our experience? Why must we drive a stake through our cerebral cortex before writing? Can we logically assume that we are more objective thinkers when we avoid the first person?

When is first person point of view used?

First person point of view is often used in personal narrative—when the writer is telling a story or relating an experience. This perspective is writer’s point of view, and the writer becomes the focal point. First person personal pronouns include I, we, me, us, my, mine, our, and ours.

Examples of sentences written from the first person point of view:

  • I was only seven years old when my family moved to the United States.
  • We took a vacation that allowed us to explore our nation from east to west and north to south.

Although there are occasions when a shift in point of view is appropriate, unnecessary and inconsistent shifts—especially within a sentence—are distracting to the reader and can cause a confusing change in perspective.

How can you correct an unnecessary shift in point of view?

  • In a passage where an unnecessary shift has been noted, go through and highlight each of the point of view words.
  • Change the point of view of the inconsistent pronouns to align them with the primary point of view that has already been established.

What is a pronoun-antecedent relationship?

A pronoun is a part of speech that can replace a noun; its antecedent is the person, place, or thing to which the pronoun refers. Unclear pronoun-antecedent relationships, or those without proper agreement, can leave the reader confused. Writers who strive for clarity in their work should be certain that each pronoun has a clear antecedent and that the pronoun and antecedent agree in person (first, second, or third), number, and gender.

Writers must determine which point of view they want to use in a particular piece of writing. They can choose between first person ("I," "we"), second person ("you"), and third person ("one," "he," "she," "they"). Sometimes the point of view will shift in a piece of writing, but most of the time writers must stay consistent, using one point of view throughout their text. So how do writers know which point of view to use? Read the articles below to find out. 

Look at the following lines and determine how you might revise them so that they remove the pronoun “you” or define the pronoun “we”:

  • You can understand what it’s like to have a stack of papers to grade and only two days to do it.
  • We now know that cigarettes can cause various types of cancer.
  • I would like you to understand that not all students are lazy.
  • We believe that gay marriage is not immoral or harmful to the American family; as such, we argue that it should be legalized.
  • Doughnuts are really harmful to our health, so we should stop ingesting them.

For many novice academic writers, the decision of whether to use first-person or third-person voice is determined by several factors. First and third-person refers to the point of view the author adopts, where first-person uses the singular and plural pronouns “I,” “we,” “me,” and “us,” as in “I argue that,” and third-person uses “she,” “he,” “it,” or “they.” Often times, academic writers will identify the subject in the third-person, as in “Stone argues that,” or “The researchers suggest.”