Point of View

In writing, point of view refers to whether the writing takes on a singular or plural perspective in either 1st person, 2nd person, or 3rd person.

  • First person is the perspective of the writer,
  • 2nd-person is the perspective of the reader being directly addressed by the writer, and
  • 3rd-person is the perspective of a different party who is neither writer nor reader.

Point of view can typically be identified by which pronouns are used. See the chart below for a quick summary. For more information on First Person, Second Person, or Third Person, click the links below.

Point of ViewPronoun
First PersonI, Me, My/Mine We, Us, Our/Ours
Second PersonYou, Your/Yours
Third PersonHe, Him, His She, Her/Hers It, ItsThey, Them, Their/ Theirs

When is a particular point of view effective or ineffective?

This can be a tricky question to answer. Judgments of effectiveness are always a matter of context and purpose. Any time you use 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person point of view, you should 1) know your reason for doing so, and 2) consider whether the reader may have a negative reaction to your chosen point of view.

For example, in the previous sentence, the 2nd- person you speaks directly to you, the student reading this style and grammar guide. The you shows that this information is carefully targeted to a particular reader’s needs. On the other hand, I’ve avoided using the 1st-person I until this sentence because I want to keep the focus on you, the reader, rather than me, the writer. Of course, before using the 2nd-person you, I considered (and rejected) the likelihood that you might be alienated by the bluntness of my writing directly to you.

In academic writing, you are expected to use 3rd-person most of the time, with the occasional exception for 1st person if it is necessary. Using 2nd person is discouraged. Visit the My Reviewers website to watch a video on point of view to learn more about this issue.

When evaluating effectiveness, you can also consider how consistent the point of view should be. Some writing requires a completely consistent point of view. For example, software instructions directing you how to complete a task would be confusing if some instructions referred to I or we while others referred to you. Often, though, using multiple points of view can be effective, like when you write a professional email that uses the 1st- person I to describe an action you’ve taken and the 2nd-person you to ask for further instructions from your boss.

What are common reasons to choose a particular point of view?

Different points of view can be applied to different writing purposes. There are far too many reasons to choose a point of view to list them all here. This list provides three common uses for the various points of view:

Common uses of 1st person

  • Memoirs. Memoirs are all about someone’s personal experiences, so memoir authors use I frequently to describe what has happened to them and how they felt about it.
  • Certain academic disciplines. Some academic disciplines, like women’s studies and rhetoric and composition, value the inclusion of personal experience as research material, so scholars will use I and we in their work.

Common uses of 2nd person

  • Self-help books. Self-help books aim to improve their readers in some way, so the authors use you to speak directly to those readers and prompt them to reflect on themselves or take action.
  • Advertisements. Advertisements target specific audiences in order to make sales, and the use of you (e.g. “Do you need cash fast?”) can prompt a viewer to identify with the ad’s target audience.

Common uses of 3rd person

  • Quotes. When relaying quotations from other speakers or writers, authors will identify the source of the quotation in 3rd person, as in “He wrote that…”
  • News stories. Journalism generally strives to impart objective information. By using only 3rd person, journalism avoids the overly personal tone of I and you.

How can I tell if I have used a point of view ineffectively?

To identify ineffective uses of point of view, 1) identify the various points of view in your writing; and 2) decide if the points of view achieve their purpose and will not inadvertently alienate the reader.

Identify the various points of view in a piece of writing.

Ex: The American public is underinformed about important news from other countries. When you only watch local cable news or get your news from American websites, you miss out on reading about events like the Arab Spring and the tsunami in Japan.

In this example, the first sentence has a subject in 3rd-person point of view, the American public. The second sentence’s use of you gives it a 2nd-person point of view.

Decide if the points of view achieve their purpose and will not inadvertently alienate the reader.

Ex: The American public is underinformed about important news from other countries. When you only watch local cable news or get your news from American websites, you miss out on reading about events like the Arab Spring and the tsunami in Japan.

In the first sentence, 3rd-person point of view achieves the purpose of identifying who the writer thinks is underinformed: the American public. In the second sentence, though, it is unclear what purpose the 2nd-person you is intended to achieve. Why is the writer speaking directly to me, the reader? Moreover, the writer risks alienating me by seeming to assume that I am definitely uninformed. How (potentially) offensive!

How can I revise to use a more effective point of view?

Revising an ineffective use of point of view requires you to select the more appropriate point of view. It’s not a matter of grammatical correctness or of learning a rule and following it. Rather, point of view is a stylistic choice, and each ineffective use has to be addressed on an individual basis.

After identifying an ineffective use of point of view, decide which of the other two points of view is more appropriate. Substitute that point of view in to revise your writing.

Ex: The American public is underinformed about important news from other countries. When you only watch local cable news or get your news from American websites, you miss out on reading about events like the Arab Spring and the tsunami in Japan.

In the second sentence, the 2nd-person you is ineffective and should be revised into either 1st person or 3rd person. The author risks offending me, the reader, if I like to consider myself well- informed. To support the author’s goal of making a convincing argument about the causes of the American public being underinformed, 3rd person is the most appropriate point of view.

Revised: The American public is underinformed about important news from other countries. When Americans only watch local cable news or get their news from American websites, they miss out on reading about events like the Arab Spring and the tsunami in Japan.

It is important to maintain the same point of view throughout your writing. If you begin your essay using third person, you should use third person throughout that essay (unless you have a very good reason to change, like adding personal experience to support a relevant point, for instance). Problems with point of view occur when the writing bounces from 1st to 2nd and to 3rd all within the same sentence, paragraph, or essay for no reason. If you do switch point of view in your essay, make sure that it is for a very good reason!

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.
  • Reread the passage aloud and listen for consistency in point of view.

Let’s look at an example:

  • Inconsistent point of view:
    • Even though he believed weight loss was possible, you do not know how hard it can be until you try to lose a few pounds.
  • Consistent point of view:
    • Even though he believed weight loss was possible, he did not know how hard it would be until he tried to lose a few pounds.

Exercises

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.
  • If you would only give reading a try, you might actually enjoy it.
  • Subliminal messages enter our psyches on a daily basis.
  • As a feminist, I believe that women should receive pay that is equal to that of their male coworkers.

Additional articles on Point-of-view:

  1. A Synthesis of Professor Perspectives on Using First and Third Person in Academic Writing

    For many novice academic writers, the decision of whether to use first-person or third-person voice is determined by several factors....

  2. Avoid Second-Person Point of View

    When is second person point of view used? Second person point of view is often used for giving directions, offering...

  3. Avoid Unnecessary Shifts in Point of View

    Although there are occasions when a shift in point of view is appropriate, unnecessary and inconsistent shifts—especially within a sentence—are...

  4. Exercise: “We” and “You” in Academic Writing

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

  5. First-Person Point of View

    When is first person point of view used? First person point of view is often used in personal narrative—when the...

  6. General Guidelines for Using the First Person

    Understand when the first person is preferable to second or third person. "Do not use the first person" is perhaps...

  7. The First Person

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

  8. Understanding Second Person Point-of-View: Wizard Activity

    The Beginning of Your Journey You are writing for a class.  You realize that you have no idea what point-of-view...

  9. Use Third-Person Point of View

    When is third-person point of view used? Third person is used when a degree of objectivity is intended, and it...

  10. Using First Person in an Academic Essay: When is It Okay?

    Many times, high school students are told not to use first person (“I,” “we,” “my,” “us,” and so forth) in...