One major attribute of good writing is consistency of point of view. People obviously find it much easier to understand a piece of writing thatâs 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.
We will recall that from a grammar standpoint, point of view is established primarily by the writerâs choice of person and number and by the writerâs time frame. Person and number, of course, can be (1) the first-person singular âIâ or the first-person plural âwe,â (2) the second-person âyou,â which can be either singular or plural, or (3) the third-person singular âhe,â âshe,â or âoneâ or the third-person plural âthey.â The time frame, on the other hand, can be any of the three verb tenses: past, present, 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 whatâs being written about. This obviously makes the first-person singular suitable for writing about personal experiences, for expressing personal opinions, andâspecifically for new college graduates and job huntersâfor writing job application letters.
Unfortunately, not a few English teachers give their students the wrong-headed idea that writing in the first-person âIâ is undesirable and unacceptable. One unhappy result is the strong compulsion to, say, write job application letters that begin with convoluted sentences like this: âThe undersigned has the honor to apply for the abovementioned position.â The simpler, forthright way of saying that is, of course, âI would like to apply for the position,â but as most of us know, people need strong English reindoctrination to unlearn their no-âIâ 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 âweâ although they can rightfully speak only for themselves, as in this harangue: âWe the people have spoken loud and clear in the last national elections.â This is an age-old problem particularly with politicians and demagoguesâa problem that prompted the American writer Mark Twain in the late 1800s to make the admonition that âOnly presidents, editors and people with tapeworm have the right to use the editorial âweâ.â That prescription sounds relevant even today.Second person.
Singular or plural, the second-person âyouâ 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 âyou,â as in âYou need to improve your English to get ahead in your career,â or implicit, as in âImprove your English to get ahead in your career.â 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 that perspective: âhe,â âshe,â âone,â âit,â and âthey.â 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 itâs 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 erode our credibility. (2007)This essay, 543rd in the series, first appeared in the weekly column âEnglish Plain and Simpleâ by Jose A. Carillo in the July 2, 2007 issue of
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