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.
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
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
(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
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.
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?
Choice of vocabulary
A particular viewpoint can be expressed by choice of vocabulary. Some
words are "loaded" and emotive:
He's an idiot!
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
Pronouns and determiners that distinguish 'person'
This is the full range of personal pronouns
and related possessive pronouns and determiners for Standard
I, me, myself, mine, my
we, us, ourselves, ours, our
you, yourself, yours, your
you, yourselves, yours, your
she, her, herself, hers, her;
he, him, himself, his;
it, itself, its
they, them, themselves, theirs, their
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
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