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Second Person

You have seen it used many times, but it often passes by without notice.  It’s entirely possible that you had an English teacher who said it should never be done. You may have never contemplated using the second person perspective, the most direct and directed form.  But you have seen it used all over the internet as one of the most immediate and direct ways of speaking to someone.

You can use it as an accusation or from inside someone’s head.  Through its many uses and distinct flavors, you will find that nothing suits the internet quite like second person.

Because of its clumsy nature, you will find that second person is hard to maintain.  You have only one subject, the pronoun “you” that has to be repeated constantly.  You may be put off by the constant usage of this one word, but the effect is immediate and personal.  You are having a conversation directly with the reader in the second person, speaking to them as if they are in the same room.

You will most often find this perspective used in instructions or other teaching situations.  When you use the second person for teaching it is natural to become more passive and cautious.  You may be speaking to the reader, but the subject matter still has to stand out.  Use an implied pronoun to keep instructions from being repetitive, with the verb first and the subject simply left out in sentences such as “Insert the widget into the particle board table top with a big hammer”.   Write each sentence as a continuation of the previous, tying together a paragraph as a complete thought and this form will begin to flow naturally.

Of all the uses on the internet, however, you run into second person most commonly as an accusation.  You can see these examples on twitter and any other social media site when people are supposedly arguing politics but instead slip into a personal game that makes little sense at all.  “You want to control people!  You (fill in the blank) think the way you do because (fill in another blank)!”  Ideally, you find this usage as boring as I do and will avoid it altogether.

Maintain the second person if you find it works to your benefit and allows you to speak directly to the reader.  You may find that it becomes troublesome after a period of time, however.  Give it up in a new paragraph, never changing in the middle.  When you change perspective in the middle of a single thought you run the risk of seriously confusing your reader.

You can and should use the second person whenever a direct conversation with the reader is called for.  But you must be careful how you use it and be very aware that you are writing in the second person.  Watch for it and it will start to pop out to you in many places – but rarely maintained consistently and constructively.

12 thoughts on “Second Person

  1. Thanks, Jan! 🙂 Now that I don’t have to maintain second person I can just say what I really think – it’s a lot harder than it looks. It took me forever to edit this piece and get rid of the slides out of second person, so you do have to be very careful. But for some forms it works very well.

  2. You are right. As an example, you will recall Dwight Eisenhower’s message addresing D-Day soldiers directly:

    Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon a great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers in arms on other fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

    Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened, he will fight savagely.

    But this is the year 1944…

  3. Smithson: Excellent example! I have a copy of that thin paper that was handed out that day, a very long story there. I should return it to its rightful owner. But it is very powerful. I forgot that example of second person, the battle cry / coach’s speech.

  4. Joshua Ferris’ novel Then We Came to the End is written in the 1st person PLURAL narrative voice. Not as difficult to maintain, but equally as jolting.

  5. Paul: Interesting choice, I’d have to see why he chose it. I can think of several works in second person, but that is the only one I have ever heard of in first-plural! Thanks.

  6. I have reviewed some blog comments I’ve made and I have used second person at times to address another reader. I didn’t really think about doing it and rereading my comments I don’t really see a way around it. I don’t use “you” much and I guess I don’t totally get when it is appropriate or when it isn’t. It is something I will now be more aware of. ( or rather- of which I will now be more aware) It’s a good thing I teach mainly elementary age kids and don’t need a full understanding of the finer points of writing 🙂

  7. Laurie: That’s why I wanted to write about this perspective and the forms it naturally creates – it’s very common on the ‘net, and rightfully so. Conversational styles of writing are going to slip into second person easily. But when we were young it was forbidden in school – very few people have practice doing it properly with a hand guiding how to do it. The result is often confusion. What seems accusatory may simply be an attempt to be engaging and intimate. It’s worth thinking about as we all strive to be better communicators.

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