Wednesday, March 11, 2009

First, second and third person (1)

Yesterday, The New York Times carried an article about the success of Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why, a bestselling book about a teenager’s suicide.

The article quoted the publisher:

“ ‘It was not a book where a whole house runs out and pushes like crazy, and you have to have success right away, because you spent all this money,’ said Benjamin Shrank, publisher of Razorbill. The company paid Mr. Asher a low six-figure advance for two books.”

Mr. Shrank’s sentence is unclear for two reasons:

First, he switches from third person (“a whole house runs out and pushes like crazy”) to second person (“you have to have success right away, because you spent all this money”). By the rules of grammar, a listener will conclude that Mr. Shrank’s “you” refers to someone other than the publishing house. The listener will remain confused until he guesses that Mr. Shrank is using bad grammar and is actually still referring to the publishing house.

Second, Mr. Shrank’s comment would have been much more natural and clear in first person. For example:

We did not have to run out and push like crazy. We could afford to wait for success because we had invested only a modest amount.

Novice writers often ask, “Why does grammar matter, so long as the meaning is clear?” The answer is that ungrammatical writing is usually not clear. Mr. Shrank’s sentence is just one example among billions.

The Takeaway: Pronouns and verbs constitute only two of the eight parts of speech. But these two cause more trouble than the other six; one reason is person. Be sure that every pronoun and verb is in the correct person. And don’t switch gratuitously from one person to another. Review your grammar book. If you are serious about writing, you will own one. I recommend Writing and Thinking, by Norman Foerster and J. M. Steadman, Jr.

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