Reading Point of View Help (page 3)
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- The company congratulates you on the birth of your child.
- 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."
Distance vs. Intimacy
Whether writers intend it or not (though they almost always do), the third-person point of view establishes a certain distance between the writer and the reader. There's no direct person - to - person contact that way (me to you). Rather, with the third-person point of view, someone (or something) else is speaking to the reader.
The first-person point of view, on the other hand, establishes a certain intimacy between the writer and the reader. The writer uses I, my, mine, we, our, orus as if expressing his or her own personal feelings and ideas directly to the reader. "We congratulate you" makes message B much more personal than message A, where the company congratulates you.
- First-person point of view establishes intimacy.
- Third-person point of view establishes distance.
The writer wants to be close to the reader.
The writer wants to distance him - or herself from the reader.
When Writers Use Third Person
In a business environment, it's not always practical to be personal. Though the first-person point of view may make the reader feel close to the writer, the first-person point of view also implies a certain subjectivity. That is, the writer is expressing a very personal view from a very personal perspective.
Subjectivity vs. Objectivity
There's nothing wrong with expressing personal views, but in the business world, writers may not always be at an advantage using the first - person point of view. They're more likely to be taken seriously when they're objective, presenting things from an outsider's point of view, than when they're subjective, presenting things from their own possibly selfish or biased point of view.
- Subjective: based on the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of the speaker or writer (first-person point of view)
- Objective: unaffected by the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of the speaker or writer (third person point of view)
Thus, if you wanted to complain about a new office policy, which of the following points of view do you think would be more effective?
- I think our new office policy is a failure.
- The new office policy appears to be a failure.
Most people would agree that sentence B is more effective. The question is, why?
- The point of view of sentence B is more effective than that of sentence A because
- sentence A is too subjective.
- sentence B is too subjective.
- sentence A is too objective.
- all of the above.
The answer is choice a. Sentence A uses the first person point of view, and because I is so subjective and personal, it doesn't carry as much weight as the objective sentence B. In sentence B, there is no personal perspective; someone from the outside (a third person, not the reader or the writer) is looking at the policy and evaluating it. The third-person point of view is almost always considered to be more objective because the third person is not directly involved in the action. I, however, is directly involved in the action (the policy) and therefore cannot have an objective opinion about the policy's success or failure. I's opinion may be prejudiced by the writer's personal experience.
Of course, even when a writer uses third person, he or she can still express his or her own opinion. When that opinion is expressed in the third person, however, it appears much more objective.
When Writers Use Second Person
When is you an appropriate pronoun? What effect does it create for you, the reader? You generally is used to address the reader directly, particularly when the writer is giving directions. Imagine, for example, that you have registered for a financial planning class at the local community college. Prior to the first class, you receive the following note:
As a student in our financial planning class, you will need several items. First, you must purchase the book Financial Planning: The Basics by Robin Wexel. Second, you must outline your current financial situation by making a list of your income sources as well as your bank accounts, investments, and retirement plans. Finally, you should prepare a financial wish list that documents where you would like to see yourself financially ten years from now. You should be as specific as possible when putting this list together.
Now, imagine you receive this note instead:
Students in our financial planning class will need several items. First, they must purchase the book Financial Planning: The Basics by Robin Wexel. Second, they must outline their current financial situation by making a list of income sources as well as bank accounts, investments, and retirement plans. Finally, they should prepare a financial wish list that documents where they would like to see themselves financially ten years from now. They should be as specific as possible when putting this list together.
Which note would you rather receive? ______
Most likely you'd rather receive note A. Now, here's the tougher question:
- The point of view of note A is more effective than the point of view of note B because
- note A feels less formal.
- note A speaks personally to the reader.
- note A addresses the reader as an individual.
- all of the above.
Many people would prefer note A for all of these reasons, so the answer is d. First of all, in note A, the writer speaks directly to the reader (you). In note B, the writer speaks in the third person ("students"); the note never acknowledges that you are a student. As a result, note B sounds more formal or official. The second- person point of view, however, addresses you personally. It singles you out as an individual, not as a category (student). It is almost like note A was written just for you.
Second Person and Audience
In fact, because note A uses the second-person point of view, you can make certain assumptions about the audience for this note. Reread note A and then answer this question:
- Note A was most likely written for
- students considering the financial planning class for next year.
- instructors at the school.
- students enrolled in the financial planning class only.
- all students at the community college.
Because note A uses the second-person pronoun you, you can assume that it is written for c, only students enrolled in the financial planning class. It must be; it can't work for any other audience because of its pronoun.
Note B, on the other hand, could be used for a much larger audience. In fact, the note could be a description in a course catalogue designed for all students at the college as well as the general public. So, the third-person point of view may have been used in note B not to create a distance between the reader and the writer, but to allow for a wider audience.
Writers may also use you to make readers feel as if they are taking part in the action or ideas being expressed in the text. For example, let's imagine that a writer wants to convince readers in a particular town that a community garden is a good idea. The writer could use the third-person point of view, as in the following paragraph:
Imagine how wonderful it would be if local residents had access to a community garden. Rather than gardening in isolation, residents would come together in an appealing designated spot to plant a bountiful garden. They would be given a plot of land within the large garden to plant as they see fit. They could plant flowers, vegetables, herbs, or any other greenery they desire. The requirement would be that they spend at least one hour in the garden every week and that they bring a few gardening implements to share, such as watering cans, gardening gloves, fertilizer, and shovels. The benefits of a community garden would be numerous. Residents would have access to land to garden they might not otherwise have. They would be part of a worthwhile and rewarding community activity that would allow them to meet other residents who love gardening and who might have excellent gardening skills and hints to share. Additionally, a community garden would be a wonderful oasis in the middle of our busy town where residents can come to walk, sit, or just enjoy the company of neighbors in a lush and friendly setting.
Or, the writer could use the second-person point of view to express the same ideas:
Imagine how wonderful it would be if you had access to a community garden. Rather than gardening in isolation, you would come together in an appealing designated spot to plant a bountiful garden. You would be given a plot of land within the large garden to plant as you see fit. You could plant flowers, vegetables, herbs, or any other greenery you desire. The requirement would be that you spend at least one hour in the garden every week and that you bring a few gardening implements to share, such as watering cans, gardening gloves, fertilizer, and shovels. The benefits of a community garden would be numerous. You would have access to land to garden you might not otherwise have. You would be part of a worthwhile and rewarding community activity that would allow you to meet other residents who love gardening and who might have excellent gardening skills and hints to share. Additionally, a community garden would be a wonderful oasis in the middle of our busy town where you can come to walk, sit, or just enjoy the company of neighbors in a lush and friendly setting.
Did you notice the differences between the paragraphs? What pronouns does each paragraph use?
- Paragraph A uses
- first-person pronouns (I, we).
- second-person pronouns (you).
- third-person pronouns (he, she, they).
- Paragraph B uses
- first-person pronouns (I, we).
- second-person pronouns (you).
- third-person pronouns (he, she, they).
Paragraph A uses the third person (c), while paragraph B uses the second person (b). Now, which paragraph do you find more convincing? Most people would be more convinced by paragraph B. Why?
- Paragraph B seems more convincing because
- you puts the readers into the action of the paragraph.
- you makes readers pay more attention.
- you makes readers imagine themselves in that situation.
- all of the above.
The second-person point of view does all of these things (d), and that's why it is often more convincing than the other points of view. The second-person point of view puts you, the reader, directly into the situation. As soon as you read the word you, you start to pay extra attention because the writer is addressing you directly. And you can't help but imagine yourself enjoying the benefits of a community garden because the writer puts you in each scenario. The writer of this paragraph knows that if you imagine yourself in these situations, you are much more likely to see the benefits of a community garden.
You can see by now how important point of view is in writing, for each point of view creates a certain effect. Sometimes, it brings the reader and the writer closer together; sometimes, it pushes them apart. Sometimes, it makes an argument more convincing through third-person objectivity; sometimes, an argument is more convincing through second-person involvement; and sometimes, it's more convincing through first-person intimacy. Writers choose their points of view carefully in order to create a certain relationship both with their ideas and with the reader.
TIP: Vocabulary You Can Use—Omniscient point of view occurs when an outside narrator discusses the thoughts of the characters in the story. Limited point of view is when one character tells the story, thereby limiting the retelling and interpretation of events to his or her perspective and personal bias.
Practice exercises for this concept can be found at Reading Language and Style Practice Test.
Test your knowledge at Reading Comprehension Final Practice Test.
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