Tuesday, May 19, 2009

First, second and third person (2)

In a previous post, I discussed grammatical person (first, second and third person). In that post, I quoted a book publisher’s statement that is difficult to understand because the publisher confuses second person with third person.

Today we have a piece of copy in which the writer confuses first person with second person with third person.

The writer has a friend who once worked as a torturer's gofer, hunting “for People of Interest, to then be turned over to torturers…” The writer and other friends of the torturer’s gofer are reluctant to talk about torture, both in and out of the gofer's presence:

“Silence seems to be the answer … at least to everyone [third person] in my circle. That’s how we [first person] handle it. You [second person] ignore it.”

The writer uses first person, second person and third person to refer to one group of people. This abuse of grammatical person is confusing to the reader. The writer would have made his point more clearly if he had written something like this:

Silence seems to be the answer … at least for us [first person]. That’s how we [first person] handle torture. We [first person] ignore it.

It makes the same point, with the same (or more) emotional impact and with more clarity.

The Takeaway: Don’t confuse your reader: don’t start a discussion in one grammatical person and then switch to another. The more you switch, the more you confuse. Review the pronoun section in your grammar book; learn first person, second person and third person so thoroughly that you will jar yourself awake whenever you accidentally switch person.

First, second and third person (1)


  1. I am an editor and delighted to discover this blog.
    What would you say about an article (3rd person) that in one graf says "a client might realize…" then goes in the next to "If you're worried that a remodeling job will keep you out of the kitchen…" Then back to third person to finish. Does this jar you or not? I've seen it done and always wondered how much mixing is allowed. .

    1. Thank you for visiting my blog. You asked if a shift from third to second person and back, over a couple of paragraphs, jars me. Good question. Yes, it jars me, but only a little. It would probably confuse and delay most readers for a few seconds until they guess what the writer meant. If that’s the only error in a whole article, it’s not too bad. What jars me a LOT is text that contains many instances of many types of offenses against clarity. As you know, some of more common types, in addition to shift in person, are circumlocution, redundancy, misplaced modifier, vague antecedent, confusing transition, semi-literate diction, non-parallel construction, careless punctuation, faulty logic and “elegant variation.” Multiple offenses have a cumulative effect; with every additional offense, the text becomes harder for readers to finish. One by one, readers give up. My main goal in writing this blog is to help writers avoid this cumulative effect.