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Author Topic: Lesson #14 - Consistency in Point of View  (Read 18418 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: August 01, 2009, 12:51:34 AM »

One major attribute of good writing is consistency of point of view. People obviously find it much easier to understand a piece of writing that’s told from only one voice and one perspective. This is because when a composition is written this way, the source of the information becomes easier to identify and the context of the message becomes easier to grasp.

From a grammar standpoint, point of view is established primarily by the writer’s choice of person and number and by the writer’s time frame.

Person and number can be:
(1) The first-person singular “I” or the first-person plural “we,”
(2) The second-person “you,” which can be either singular or plural, or
(3) The third-person singular “he,” “she,” or “one” or the third-person plural “they.”

The time frame can be any of the three verb tenses:
(1) Past,
(2) Present, or
(3) Future.

First person
In the first-person singular, the writer is, of course, indicating to the reader that he himself or she herself is the speaker; as such, he or she is both participant and observer in what’s being written about. This obviously makes the first-person singular suitable for writing about personal experiences, for expressing personal opinions, and—specifically for new college graduates and job hunters—for writing job application letters.

Unfortunately, not a few English teachers give their students the wrong-headed idea that writing in the first-person “I” is undesirable and unacceptable. One unhappy result is the strong compulsion to, say, write job application letters that begin with convoluted sentences like this:

“The undersigned has the honor to apply for the abovementioned position.”

The simpler, forthright way of saying that is, of course, this:

I would like to apply for the position.”

But as most of us know, people need strong English reindoctrination to unlearn their no-“I” syndrome and finally be able to write a decent first-person sentence.

On the other hand, some people get badly afflicted with the compulsion to write in the first-person plural “we” although they can rightfully speak only for themselves, as in this harangue:

We the people have spoken loud and clear in the last national elections.”

This is an age-old problem particularly with politicians and demagogues—a problem that prompted the American writer Mark Twain in the late 1800s to make this admonition: “Only presidents, editors and people with tapeworm have the right to use the editorial ‘we’.” That prescription sounds relevant even today.

Second person
Singular or plural, the second-person “you” is obviously the most suitable point of view for describing a process, for giving directions or advice, and for addressing people in our correspondence. We only need to remember that we can be explicit in using “you,” as in this sentence:

You need to improve your English to get ahead in your career.”

Or implicit, as in this sentence:

“Improve your English to get ahead in your career.”

Third person
When our writing needs to convey a sense of objectivity, detachment, and balance, the point of view of choice is the third person. Here, we need the following third-person pronouns to establish the perspective: “he,” “she,” “one,” “it,” and “they.” The third person is the prescribed point of view for formal, academic, and technical writing, and it will be foolhardy for us to go against that prescription.

Consistency in tense
To make it easier for the reader to follow the flow of ideas in our writing, we need to be consistent in our use of the tenses. We should avoid unnecessary tense shifts, and if a shift becomes absolutely needed, we must announce it beforehand to avoid confusing the reader.

In sum, whether it’s a matter of person and number or of verb tense, it pays to be scrupulously consistent in point of view. Changing it unknowingly or unnecessarily can make us sound like scatterbrains and this, of course, erodes our credibility.

Addendum:
ABOUT THE USE OF THE SECOND-PERSON "YOU" IN GIVING INSTRUCTIONS:


When I said in my guidelines for consistency above that “the second-person ‘you’ is obviously the most suitable point of view for describing a process, for giving directions or advice,” I meant it to be in the sense of a person-to-person, face-to-face instruction being given by the speaker to the receiver of the instruction. As you'll see in the following second-person rendition of the general guideline I suggested for giving instructions, it’s indeed the second-person “you” that’s the most suitable point of view for this communication situation:

To make it easier for the reader to follow the flow of ideas in your writing, you need to be consistent in your use of the tenses. You should avoid unnecessary tense shifts, and if a shift becomes absolutely needed, you must announce it beforehand to avoid confusing the reader.

In such personalized face-to-face instruction situations, the instructor really doesn’t have much choice but to use the second-person point of view, and the one taking the instruction would really be appreciative of the fact that the instructor is addressing him or her directly. Indeed, to use the third-person “we” in such contexts would sound obtuse—shall we say unnecessarily snottily professorial?

When instruction is given indirectly, however, as in the case of instruction I give to people en masse through this Forum, the use of the second-person “you” might not be very advisable because some readers might perceive it as hectoring—you know, like what Achilles did to the hapless Hector in Greek mythology before slaying him, trying to intimidate or harass by bluster or personal pressure. This coercive sense in using the second-person “you” is actually brought about by the very nature of the print media itself, something that’s too complicated to explain here but which I'm sure is generally understood by the reading public. This is why when people communicate through the print media, like me in this case, I often take recourse to the so-called editorial “we,” which is meant to soften the pointedness and coerciveness—the “hectoring” quality—of the second-person “you.”

Feel that difference in my original construction using the editorial “we”:

To make it easier for the reader to follow the flow of ideas in our writing, we need to be consistent in our use of the tenses. We should avoid unnecessary tense shifts, and if a shift becomes absolutely needed, we must announce it beforehand to avoid confusing the reader.   

(I would like to thank Forum member Max Sims for wringing out this clarification from me. I am now making it an integral part of the lesson on consistency of voice that I have just given above.)
« Last Edit: August 03, 2009, 09:23:24 AM by Joe Carillo » Logged

maxsims
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« Reply #1 on: August 01, 2009, 07:20:00 AM »

Singular or plural, the second-person “you” is obviously the most suitable point of view for describing a process, for giving directions or advice.....[/i]

If this is so, how come:

To make it easier for the reader to follow the flow of ideas in our writing, we need to be consistent in our use of the tenses. We should avoid unnecessary tense shifts, and if a shift becomes absolutely needed, we must announce it beforehand to avoid confusing the reader.

This is consistency?
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Joe Carillo
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« Reply #2 on: August 02, 2009, 12:12:32 AM »

I'm afraid I don't get your question. Please clarify.
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maxsims
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« Reply #3 on: August 02, 2009, 04:13:39 AM »

Sorry Joe,

You state: Singular or plural, the second-person “you” is obviously the most suitable point of view for describing a process, for giving directions or advice....

Yet in your own advice to us two pars later, you state: To make it easier for the reader to follow the flow of ideas in our writing, we need to be consistent in our use of the tenses. We should avoid unnecessary tense shifts, and if a shift becomes absolutely needed, we must announce it beforehand to avoid confusing the reader. 

Which isn't second person.
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Joe Carillo
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« Reply #4 on: August 02, 2009, 09:11:21 AM »

Sorry Joe,

You state: Singular or plural, the second-person “you” is obviously the most suitable point of view for describing a process, for giving directions or advice....

Yet in your own advice to us two pars later, you state: To make it easier for the reader to follow the flow of ideas in our writing, we need to be consistent in our use of the tenses. We should avoid unnecessary tense shifts, and if a shift becomes absolutely needed, we must announce it beforehand to avoid confusing the reader. 

Which isn't second person.

That’s right—that advice isn’t in the second person but in the third person. You see, when I said in my guidelines for consistency that “the second-person ‘you’ is obviously the most suitable point of view for describing a process, for giving directions or advice,” I meant it to be in the sense of a person-to-person, face-to-face instruction being given by the speaker to the receiver of the instruction. As you'll see in the following second-person rendition of the passage you have cited, it’s indeed the second-person “you” that’s the most suitable point of view for this communication situation:

To make it easier for the reader to follow the flow of ideas in your writing, you need to be consistent in your use of the tenses. You should avoid unnecessary tense shifts, and if a shift becomes absolutely needed, you must announce it beforehand to avoid confusing the reader.

In such personalized face-to-face instruction situations, the instructor really doesn’t have much choice but to use the second-person point of view, and the one taking the instruction would really be appreciative of the fact that the instructor is addressing him or her directly. Indeed, to use the third-person “we” in such contexts would sound obtuse—shall we say unnecessarily snottily professorial?

When instruction is given indirectly, however, as in the case of instruction I give to people en masse through this Forum, the use of the second-person “you” might not be very advisable because some readers might perceive it as hectoring—you know, like what Achilles did to the hapless Hector in Greek mythology before slaying him, trying to intimidate or harass by bluster or personal pressure. This coercive sense in using the second-person “you” is actually brought about by the very nature of the print media itself, something that’s too complicated to explain here but which I'm sure is generally understood by the reading public. This is why when people communicate through the print media, like me in this case, I often take recourse to the so-called editorial “we,” which is meant to soften the pointedness and coerciveness—the “hectoring” quality—of the second-person “you.”

Feel that difference in my original construction using the editorial “we”:

To make it easier for the reader to follow the flow of ideas in our writing, we need to be consistent in our use of the tenses. We should avoid unnecessary tense shifts, and if a shift becomes absolutely needed, we must announce it beforehand to avoid confusing the reader.   

It would have been nice, of course, if I had made this explanation part of the lesson I gave on the need for consistency in voice, but I suppose it needed someone as grammatically acute and perceptive as you to wring it out from me. At any rate, Max, if you agree with this explanation of mine, I would gladly make it an integral part of that particular lesson right after this.
« Last Edit: August 02, 2009, 04:30:42 PM by Joe Carillo » Logged

maxsims
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« Reply #5 on: August 02, 2009, 02:03:21 PM »

That would be good!     Smiley
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Joe Carillo
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« Reply #6 on: August 02, 2009, 04:35:31 PM »

That would be good!     Smiley

The clarification I made about the use of the second-person "you" in giving instructions is now part of the lesson on consistency in voice, which I have just updated. Thanks for wringing it out of me, Max! I think the lesson has been greatly enriched by it.
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« Reply #7 on: August 23, 2010, 01:50:58 PM »

I have to admit that this piece of information had been indeed helpful in clearing some confusion that I have had in mind for quite some time now. My English teacher isn’t that friendly and every time I tried to ask a question, she takes it offensively and treats my question as a doubt or a statement against her. With all of this, I don’t have to get into trouble anymore and the bright side is that I have a chance to improve my English.
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