When to use first, second and third person in writing
The point of view or person you choose for your writing helps create your tone and perspective.
- First person writing uses ‘I’ and ‘we’. ‘I’ writing is personal, but ‘we’ is often used collectively to refer to an organisation or group.
- With second person writing, you talk directly to your reader using ‘you’ language. The second person is used extensively in marketing material and also to provide information.
- Third person writing uses ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’ and ‘they’. It is more formal than the first and second person and is often used in reports, policies and scholarly texts.
Most of us use the right person instinctively. But if you’re stuck think about what you want to achieve and your audience.
Second person writing
There is an increasing trend, particularly in marketing writing, to use the second person extensively. It is powerful. ‘You’ language helps creates the sense that the writer is talking directly to you, so you feel engaged and involved. It’s also a useful technique to help you, the writer, concentrate on what the reader wants to know rather than what you want to say. When people write in the second person their language is often more active and direct.
We use the second person in emails and marketing.
Third person writing
Third person writing is more authoritative and objective than first or second person writing. It’s the language we’re used to reading in our daily newspapers.
Third person writing is also more distant. This can be a disadvantage if you want to engage your reader, but an advantage if you’re writing about negative topics, such as poor management, and don’t want to imply that your reader is guilty (even if you know they are).
We tend to use third person in formal business writing, such as reports and board papers, and most corporate guidelines will recommend third person. In practice, I see the first person plural creeping into board papers (we, our) and I like it!
First person writing
‘I’ is personal and informal and is still not appropriate in a lot of business and marketing writing. But businesses of all sizes often use ‘we’ to personalise their services. For example, ‘Discover what we’re doing across the regions’.
First person writing is used increasingly in small-business websites and blogs. Read my blog: Are you a cat or dog person? about how online writing is becoming more personal.
Learn more about writing with my online Business Writing course.
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