Prewriting: Ground Zero

18 Point of View

Your voice can’t actually be heard when you write, but it can be conveyed through the words you choose, the order you place them in, and the point of view from which you write. When you decide to write something for a specific audience, you often know instinctively what tone of voice will be most appropriate for that audience: serious, professional, funny, friendly, neutral, etc.

For a discussion of analyzing an author’s point of view when reading a text, see “Point of View.”

What is Point of View, and How Do I Know Which One to Use?

Point of view can be tricky, so this is a good question. Point of view is the perspective from which you’re writing, and it dictates what your focus is. Consider the following examples:

  • I love watching the leaves change in the fall. (First person point of view)
  • You will love watching the leaves change colour. (Second person)
  • The leaves in fall turn many vibrant colours. (Third person)

Which of the above sentences focuses most clearly on the leaves? Third person, right? The first person sentence focuses on what “I” love and the second person sentence focuses on what “you” will love.

  • First person uses the following pronouns: I, me, my, us, we, myself, our, ours… any words that include the speaker/writer turn the sentence into first person.
  • Second person uses any form of the word “you,” which has the effect of addressing the reader.
  • Third person uses pronouns like he, she, it, they, or nouns… any words that direct the reader to a person or thing that is not the writer or reader turn the sentence into third person.
    The three points of view. Image description linked in caption.
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When is it Okay to Use Each of These Points of View?

Most Common: Third Person

Many of your instructors will ask you to write in third person only and will want you to avoid first or second person. One important reason is that third person point of view focuses on a person or topic outside yourself or the reader, making it the most professional, academic, and objective way to write. The goal of third person point of view is to remove personal, subjective bias from your writing, at least in theory. Most of the writing you will do in academics will require you to focus on ideas, people, and issues outside yourself, so third person will be the most appropriate. This point of view also helps your readers stay focused on the topic instead of thinking about you or themselves.

Occasional: First Person

The point of view you choose to write in will depend on your audience and purpose. If your goal is to relate to your audience in a personal way about a topic that you have experience with, then it may be appropriate to use first person point of view to share your experience and connect with your audience. Otherwise, first person may not be appropriate—especially for the thesis statement. You want to eliminate the first person because it moves the focus to the writer rather than the main point. That weakens the point because it focuses on the least important aspect of the sentence and also because it sounds like a disclaimer. You might say “I think” because you’re not sure, or “I believe” because you want to stress the point that this is only your opinion. Of course, it’s okay to use a disclaimer if you really mean to do so, and it’s also fine to use first person to render personal experience or give an anecdote.

Least Common: Second Person

Second person is used least, especially in academic writing, because most of the time you will not know your audience well enough to write directly to them. The exception is if you’re writing a letter or directing your writing to a very specific group whom you know well.

Notice that this textbook uses second person in this paragraph because it directly addresses you. It is okay to do this because the textbook wants you to do specific things, and its audience is reading and writing students.
The danger of using second person is that this point of view can implicate readers in your topic when you don’t mean to do that. If you’re talking about crime rates in your city, and you write something like, “When you break into someone’s house, this affects their property value,” you are literally saying that the reader breaks into people’s houses. Of course, that’s not what you mean. You didn’t intend to implicate the readers this way, but that’s one possible consequence of using second person.

Tip: If you’re having a hard time getting started using third person in an academic essay, use your rough draft to write “I think that” or “I believe” and then delete these phrases in the final draft.

Does anything else affect the tone of your writing?

Many times writers are so focused on the ideas they want to convey that they forget the importance of something they may never think about: sentence variety. The length of your sentences matters. If you start every sentence with the same words, readers may get bored. If all of your sentences are short and choppy, your writing may sound unsophisticated or rushed. Some short sentences are nice though. They help readers’ brains catch up. This is a lot to think about while you’re writing your first draft though, so I recommend saving this concern for your second or third draft.

Visit the Purdue OWL page, “Strategies for Variation” for some examples of sentence variety and exercises that will improve your sentence variety superpowers.

Image Descriptions

Three circles labelled with the three points of view: third person, second person, and first person, and when to use them:

  • First person uses the pronouns I, me, us, we, my, ours, and mine, and conveys a personal tone for writing focused on the writer.
  • Second person includes you, your, and yours, and conveys a direct tone used when the writer knows the reader well and is writing to them.
  • Third person includes she, he, it, they, them, their, and theirs and conveys a more formal and universal tone for writing focused on events, issues, or people outside the reader and writer.

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Text Attributions

  • This chapter was adapted from “Tone, Voice, and Point of View” in The Word on College Reading and Writing by Carol Burnell, Jaime Wood, Monique Babin, Susan Pesznecker, and Nicole Rosevear, which is licensed under a CC BY-NC 4.0 Licence. Adapted by Allison Kilgannon.

Media Attributions

  • “Point of View Circle” by BCcampus is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 Licence. Based on an image by Carol Burnell, Jaime Wood, Monique Babin, Susan Pesznecker, and Nicole Rosevear, which is licensed under a CC BY-NC 4.0 Licence.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Advanced English Copyright © 2021 by Allison Kilgannon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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