Knowledge of Language

Verbs - first, second and third person

First person

This is where the text uses 'I', 'we' and 'our'.

First person is used to write or talk about a personal experience. In a novel, of course, the main character, who is obviously not a real person, may be narrating the story in the first person, as if it were a personal experience. 

Writers may use the first person as they reflect upon an issue, though it is more common to use third person for this sort of writing. 

I was brought up in a Scottish fishing town, where the smell of the fish smoking over the oak chips filled the air whenever we wandered around our local harbour. (Personal experience)

It is difficult to know to what extent we should mollycoddle our children. My own childhood was very free but nowadays I am reluctant to let my children play outside on their own. How can we find the correct balance? (Reflection on an issue)

Second person

This is where the text uses 'you', which can be singular or plural – about one person or more than one. (Actually the Scots plural form 'yous' is very sensible.) The word 'your' is also used in the second person.

Second person is used in instruction manuals, recipes etc. In some cases the word 'you' is not actually there, but is understood. Very occasionally, a writer will use second person to give a sense of immediacy.

You go down this road as far as the traffic lights and then you turn left.

Mix the yellow paint with the blue and then put it in that part of your painting. (Here 'you' is understood.)

You hear your name called out. You go down the corridor with your heart in your mouth. Slowly, you open the door. (Here second person is used to give a sense of immediacy.)

Third person

This is where the text uses 'she', 'he', 'it', 'they', 'her', 'his' and 'their'. Third person is used where the writer or speaker is describing someone else, and not their own personal experience. 

One point to notice, however, is that text in the third person can include direct speech in the first or second person. The text is still said to be in the third person.

For many years Ian had had a dream of owning a house somewhere in the sun. Finally, after he retired from teaching, he achieved this.

'Would you like to come and visit me?' he asked his friends. They were only too happy to agree. (This is still in the third person even though the direct speech is in the first person.)

It is difficult to know to what extent children should be mollycoddled. Many who are now parents themselves had a very free childhood, but they are reluctant to let their own children play outside on their own. (Third person used to reflect on an issue.)