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The Writing Center

Audience and Person

As soon as a student is asked, "Who is your audience?" the most common reply is "my teacher." However, in college writing the audience is often more general and more varied than just the teacher who assigns the essay and dispenses a grade. In a college class, an instructor may have students analyze a product and write a letter to the president of that company or write an editorial for a newspaper or present a paper to the entire class. Because of the wider scope of the audience, the writer needs to take on a new, more authoritative role, one with authority based on research and expertise. However, if an instructor prompts a specific audience or the use of a specific rhetorical strategy, then the appropriate person must be used consistently throughout the essay.

To create a specific point of view, one of three persons must be chosen.

First Person Singular

First person singular is best used for essays based on the personal experience of the author. It revolves around the use of I, me and my and places the author's experiences and perceptions at the forefront of the essay. One example of the use of first person is in a narrative: I have often seen the effects of illiteracy on the faces of the people I … First person singular is used in personal narratives or position papers, but not in academic argumentative papers. Generally, because of the lack of authority, a student's personal opinion using first person is not regularly used in formal writing.

Second Person Singular

Second person singular revolves around the use of you and your and is often used in a conversational, vague omniscient point of view. Second person is effectively used when writing directions; in this case the audience is clearly identified and is seeking the author's advice. Otherwise, the "you" reference can be confusing or even create hostility. If the author asserts When you develop herpes from…or When you develop prostate cancer…, the audience may then immediately put up a barrier to any further information or stop reading altogether.

So, if you are considering using the you point of view, you should ultimately consult your instructor!

Third Person Plural

Third person plural is the most formal point of view and the one most commonly found in academic writing. Third person plural uses they, them and their to avoid gender identification, which can be an issue when trying to be gender neutral: They have found that illiteracy rates coincide with …. In this case, the audience is not directly attacked by any assertions made by the author and may more readily accept the points offered. Also, using third person plural helps the writer avoid continually saying "he or she" or just "he" when the gender of the subject is unknown.

There is a danger, however, with the overuse of any pronoun. The reference may become confusing or vague: They found that illiteracy rates often dropped in their studies… to clarify: Leading researchers at Purdue University found that illiteracy rates dropped in students who took…This is still considered third person, but the vague of nebulous pronouns has been exchanged for more clear, specific nouns.

There is a second danger in using third person and that is confusing singular and plural verb tenses. It is important to consistently use singular verb forms with singular pronouns and plural verb forms with plural pronouns. For example: he or she walks, they walk

Final Tip
As with any assignment, it is important to consider your instructor's prompt and to meet your instructor's expectations. Choose one person whether it is first, second, or third person depending on the assignment, and use it consistently throughout your essay.

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