Person & Viewpoint

last changed 20 Feb 2003


Introduction: Person and Viewpoint

The term person is usually defined as follows:

  • first person: the speaker or writer;
  • second person: the person addressed, i.e. the listener or reader;
  • third person: anyone else.

The obvious devices for distinguishing 'persons' (in this sense) are the personal pronouns and their related possessive determiners.

Viewpoint

The viewpoint expressed in any writing can be that of:

  • the writer
  • a character
  • a fictitious narrator

The system of grammatical 'person' is important as one of the main devices that we use in order to show whose viewpoint is being expressed, though they may leave some uncertainty which is sometimes deliberate. As for the content of the viewpoint - the judgements and opinions expressed - these are often expressed subtly, through the choice of words, so that readers or listeners may be influenced without realising why. It is important for KS3 pupils to become aware of this potential of language either to manipulate or to help the reader.

Person in narrative texts and poetry

Narrative texts

Autobiography is almost always written 'in the first person', meaning that the central character is referred to as I. Biography is written in the third person, she or he. Narrative texts can be written in either the first or third person.

First-person narration presents the events in a story from the viewpoint (physical and emotional) of one of the characters.

And so I had but one choice left – to do as I was ordered. I told the master he got rid of all decent people only to ride to ruin a little faster.

(from a section of Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte) narrated by the character Ellen Dean.)

First-person narrative has advantages and disadvantages:

  • Advantage: Readers can readily empathise with the character when they learn about their thoughts and motives, and not just what they say.

  • Disadvantage: This limits the author to specific places and times when this character is present, and to what this character can know about what is happening.

Third person narration presents events from the viewpoint of the writer. It can allow the author to comment on characters and events to her or his readers.

More than once did Elizabeth in her ramble within the park, unexpectedly meet Mr Darcy. She felt all the perverseness of the mischance that should bring him where no one else was brought; and to prevent it ever happening again, took care to inform him at first, that it was a favourite haunt of hers. How it could occur a second time therefore was very odd! Yet it did, and even a third.

from Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)

The second person (you) is often used in lyric poetry, letters and speeches. The you to whom the writer speaks may be:

  • a particular person, concept, deity or creature, such as a lover, sleep, autumn, the west wind, a tortoise
  • an implied audience, such as people living comfortable lives at home, in the war poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon
  • the reader him or herself.

Blow, blow, thou winter wind
Thou art not so unkind
As man’s ingratitude;
Thy tooth is not so keen
Because thou art not seen
Although thy breath be rude

from Blow, blow, thou winter wind (Shakespeare)

Attributing viewpoints and judgements

Viewpoint can be attributed to a person in many different ways:

  • Direct statement (Alison writing):
  • This is outrageous!

  • Direct speech:
  • Alison said, "This is outrageous!"

    Alison was upset. "This is outrageous!"

  • Verbs such as think and seem
  • I think this is outrageous.

    This seems outrageous to some people.

    Everyone thinks this is outrageous.

  • nouns such as view or opinion
  • My view is that this is outrageous.

    In my opinion this is outrageous.

    Alison's view is that this is outrageous.

  • a preposition such as according to

    According to her, this is outrageous.

Expressing judgements

As the "outrageous" example implies, as well as telling a story, writers frequently express judgements. Sometimes the judgement is overtly the writer’s own, and sometimes it is attributed to someone else. When a judgement is being made it is particularly important to be clear about viewpoint. Pupils should learn how to be discriminating in showing or understanding who owns a particular viewpoint.

What are value judgements?

Impersonal language and evaluating judgements

Some language is 'impersonal', giving the impression that viewpoints or judgements are not the responsibility of any identifiable individual.

  • These judgements are anonymous and presented as the view of some Higher Authority - the Government, the Law, the School, Science, God or whatever.
  • The question "Who says ...?" is not invited.

Pupils meet a lot of impersonal language, and most of it is beneficial and necessary but it is important for them to be aware that impersonal language does not, in itself, put the judgements expressed beyond question.

Riders must always wear a crash helmet (in the Highway Code)

Butter is bad for you (in a newspaper)

No public right of way (handwritten sign by a footpath)

At this point grammar and literacy connect with ethics and citizenship. Young citizens are faced with many mutually conflicting judgements:

You need to look after yourself - nobody else will.
We all need to look after each other and work together.

Everybody needs a car.
There are too many cars.

Eat British meat!
Be a vegetarian!

War is sometimes inevitable.
War is wrong.

However impersonal the language, some person (or group of people) has made each statement. Conflicting judgements such as these express the views of different individuals or groups. Pupils often need to make a personal choice or commitment.

What is the English teacher’s role with KS3 pupils in this area? Click here.

Choice of vocabulary

A particular viewpoint can be expressed by choice of vocabulary. Some words are "loaded" and emotive:

He's an idiot!

Don't slouch!

Others are more neutral but still express a subjective judgement which is likely to vary from judge to judge.

It soon became hot. (How soon? how warm?)

This is why it is so important to be clear about who "owns" the viewpoint, the person whose judgement is being stated.

Click here for some words that can express a judgement.

 


Pronouns and determiners that distinguish 'person'

This is the full range of personal pronouns and related possessive pronouns and determiners for Standard English.

 

singular

plural

first

I, me, myself, mine, my

we, us, ourselves, ours, our

second

you, yourself, yours, your

you, yourselves, yours, your

third

 

 

 

she, her, herself, hers, her;

he, him, himself, his;

it, itself, its

they, them, themselves, theirs, their

 

Value Judgements

These two sentences are both value judgements:

You must work harder.

You must be angry.

Although they are both based around the verb must, they are significantly different:

You must work harder.

an 'ethical' viewpoint - there is some rule or principle according to which your current work is insufficient.

Evaluation involving a value system – an issue of viewpoint.

You must be angry.

an estimation of truth - according to the available evidence, you are angry. Evaluation of truth or probability based on evidence – an issue of certainty.

 

More vocabulary that can express judgements

  • nouns: idiot, star, guerrilla, break-through, disaster, fear, opinion

    Our greatest fear was that the bus would come on time.

    This appalling disaster happened at six o'clock.

  • adjectives: great, stupid, cheap, small, many, popular, widely-held, so-called, supposed, expert

    Expert opinion holds that this is outrageous.

    This supposed disaster happened at six o'clock.

    This appalling disaster happened at six o'clock.

    We discussed the so-called success of the operation

    We discussed the resounding success of the operation.

  • verbs: love, slouch, mutter, grin, need, hope

    They hoped that the bus would come on time.

    "I didn’t do it" he muttered.

  • modal verbs: must, may, can, will

    You must work harder.

    You may go now.

    You can work harder than that.

  • adverbs: soon, often, well, nearby, very, enough, even, almost
  • Even you should be able to understand that.

    She did it well.

  • prepositions: about, near
  • He arrived at about 10 o'clock.

  • pronouns and determiners: anybody, all

    Anybody can do that.

    All the children enjoyed themselves.