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    First Person, Second, or Third?

    Wednesday, December 16, 2009
    Recently, we received the following question by e-mail.
    My department has had the idea for years that when we write training materials, we have to write in third person. However, I believe we should be writing directly to our audience, in second person. Am I correct? If so, can you point me to some documentation on this?

    Just in case "third person" and "second person" don't immediately make sense to you, let's start by answering…

    What are first, second, and third person?
    In grammar, the form of a verb is determined by whether its subject is first, second, or third person and either singular or plural. Person is best understood by first considering pronoun subjects: First person is "I" (singular) or "we" (plural); second person is "you" (singular or plural); and third person is "he, she, it" (singular) or "they" (plural). Noun subjects are always third person.

    How is person used?
    Novels are sometimes written from a first-person point of view. See the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example.

    Business writing has traditionally used third person to convey a formal voice:

    The quarterly reports must be finished by noon on Friday if they are to be included in the investor portfolios.

    When it comes to giving instructions or directions, however, we at UpWrite Press advocate using second person. In Write for Business, our handbook for business writing, the chapter on "Writing Instructions" contains the following advice:

    "Tell the reader what to do by giving numbered, step-by-step instructions that use command verbs, short sentences, and precise terms for materials, tools, and measurements" (page 98).

    In a command, or imperative sentence, like the one just quoted, the implied subject is the second-person pronoun "you." Using second person makes instructional writing direct and clear.

    Consider the alternative.
    Imagine a recipe written in third person…

    The flour should be combined with the butter. The mixture should be turned on a floured cutting board.

    Now consider the recipe written in second person…

    Combine the flour and the butter. Turn the mixture on a floured cutting board.

    What are other reasons for using second person?
    Using second person allows you to address the learner specifically. As the e-mail question points out, second person makes a direct connection with the reader. We agree. If the material isn't for the reader, who is it for?

    So, although each organization has its own style for writing instructional material, we at UpWrite Press not only advocate using second person but also use it ourselves. We reserve third person for reference materials, informational writing, analytical writing, and report writing.

    Thank you for the question. Are there any others?

    - Rob King