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Reading Point of View Help

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Updated on Sep 21, 2011

Introduction to Point of View

Picture this: You are walking along a tree-lined street late in the afternoon. Just ahead of you, a woman is sitting on a bench; a dog lies in the shade at her feet. You watch them and nod hello as you walk by. Now, picture this: You are that dog. You're sitting in the shade under a bench next to your owner's feet. Suddenly, someone walks down the street in front of you. If you look up, you can see that person nod as he or she walks by.

Although you've just pictured the same thing—a person walking by a woman with a dog—you've really pictured two very different scenes, haven't you? The scenario looks quite different from the dog's point of view than from the walker's.

This shift in perspective happens in writing by changing the point of view. Point of view is one of the first choices writers make when they begin to write, because it is the point of view that determines who is speaking to the reader.

Point of view is the person or perspective through which the writer channels his or her information and ideas. Just as we may look at a physical object from a number of different perspectives (from above it, below it, behind it, beside it, and so on), we can look at information and ideas from different perspectives as well (mine, yours, his or hers, the professor's, the country's, and so on).

Three Kinds of Point of View

When it comes to expressing point of view, writers can use three distinct approaches:

  1. First-person point of view is a highly individualized, personal point of view in which the writer or narrator speaks about his or her own feelings and experiences directly to the reader using these pronouns: I, me, mine; we, our, us.
  2. Second-person point of view is another personal point of view in which the writer speaks directly to the reader, addressing the reader as you.
  3. Third-person point of view is an impersonal, objective point of view in which the perspective is that of an outsider (a "third person") who is not directly involved in the action. There is no direct reference to either the reader (second person) or the writer (first person). The writer chooses from these pronouns: he, him, his; she, her, hers; it, its; and they, them, theirs.

All these points of view are available to writers, but not all of them may be appropriate for what they're writing, and only one will create the exact effect a writer desires. That's because each approach establishes a particular relationship between the reader and the writer.

When Writers Use First Person

Imagine you get one of the following messages from your company's head office:

  1. The company congratulates you on the birth of your child.
  2. We congratulate you on the birth of your child.

Which message would you rather receive?

Most of us would probably prefer to receive message B over message A. Why? What is the difference between these two messages? Both messages use the second-person pronoun, right? They both address the reader as you. But you probably noticed that the writers chose different points of view to refer to themselves. Message A uses the third-person point of view (the company) whereas message B uses the first person pronoun we. As a result, message B seems more sincere because it comes from a person to a person rather than from the company (a thing) to a person (you).

But those messages do more than just express congratulations to the reader. They also seem to indicate something about how the people in the head office want to be perceived. In fact, their choice of point of view shows whether they want to be seen as people (we) or as an entity (the company). Read the messages again and then decide how you think each writer wants to be perceived.

Which message seems to tell the reader, "We can speak directly to you because we are real people behind this company"?

    Message ______

Which message seems to tell the reader, "We have a very formal relationship; let's not get too personal"?

    Message ______

The company that sends message A suggests to the reader, "We have a very formal relationship; let's not get too close or too personal." Message B, on the other hand, tells the reader something more like this:

"We can speak directly to you because we are real people behind this company." Thus, the point of view reflects the way the senders of the message wish to be perceived—as a distant entity (message A) or as friendly colleagues (message B).

TIP: In poetry, the pronoun I is not always meant to reflect the poet's personal perspective or narrative. Although every poem has an author, it's important to understand the distinction between the author and what's known as the "speaker" of the poem. Sometimes the pronoun I is used to represent the perspective of another person, a place, or a thing such as a forest or the sun. For example, an inanimate object such as a pen could be the speaker in a haiku poem called "Always Writing."

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