First person vs third person: when to use which?

A question I often get about writing is whether it is ever ‘okay to write in first person’. 

My answer to this is almost always – ‘it depends’:

It depends on the type of writing we’re talking about; whether you’re writing a personal essay, an argumentative essay, an expository essay, a literary commentary, a speech, a letter, a corporate communications document, or fiction (for this, using first or third person is entirely a personal decision). 

It depends on the tone that you wish to convey; it depends on the audience that you intend to address; it depends, also, on the frequency with which you use it in a given piece of writing. 

But first, let’s get our definitions in order – 

First-person narrative:

The use of the pronoun ‘I’ (singular) or ‘we’ (collective) to communicate or narrate from a subjective point of view. 

Second-person narrative: 

The use of the pronoun ‘you’ (singular or collective) to communicate or narrate in a way that directly addresses the reader 

Third-person narrative:

The use of pronouns ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’ (singular), ‘they’ (collective) to communicate or narrate from an external point of view 

One interesting point to note is that first person is not always necessary for writing to come across as authentic or individual. An essay narrated in third person primarily focused on describing external elements such as the environment and material objects could very well convey deep, personal emotions; it is your craft, not the pronoun, that determines the depth of expression. An excellent example is Virginia Woolf’s description of London in Mrs Dalloway

“In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motorcars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.” 

An artist’s impression of Virginia Woolf’s early 20th century London (From Heritage Images, Museum of London)

As a general rule of thumb, using first person as the predominant voice of your writing is going to make you sound less formal than if you were to use third person, which tends to come across more objective in tone. 

Between “I think studying English is a waste of time” and “Studying English is a waste of time”, which one sounds more authoritative to you? 

The former tells us that one person thinks studying English is a waste of time, but the latter makes the statement as if it were a general, accepted truth. Note that I say “as if”, because the statement itself is not, in fact, a general truth, but is only conveyed to sound that way through my deliberate omission of the first-person pronoun ‘I’.

So for types of writing that require a high degree of subjective opinion (e.g. anecdotal accounts, op-eds, public speeches, or indeed, blog posts), using first person would make sense.

On the other hand, for essays that are more concerned with relaying facts (or projecting the impression of doing so!) or opinions external to oneself – which don’t have to be ‘factual’ (e.g. argumentative essay, expository essay, news report, scientific article), then perhaps it would be better to opt for the third-person voice. 

difference between first person third person narrative and voice

The use of first vs third person in literary analysis 

In this post, let’s look at the use of first-person voice in a specific type of writing: the literary analysis essay. If you’re an English literature student, this should be no stranger to you. For others, think of this as the kind of writing one would find in literary criticism. 

Unlike the argumentative essay or the personal essay, the literary analysis essay defies categorical lines when it comes to narrative voice. This is because, despite the clear subjectivity in a kind of writing that is, in essence, a personal response to a literary work, this ‘personal response’ nonetheless seeks to persuade and establish authority in the vessel of a ‘literary analysis’, specifically by formulating an argument based on ‘objective’ observations (i.e. ‘objective’ because you’re partly describing what’s written in a poem / a novel). 

What does this mean, then?

Well, it tells us that while literary analysis is largely subjective in content, it often tries to be objective in tone. Commenting on literature isn’t quite the same as a casual book club conversation; it’s an exercise in rhetorical and aesthetic persuasion, for which you make a case about a specific interpretation of a text and convince your readers to see the logic behind it.

Of course, that’s not to say they necessarily have to agree with you (in fact it’s often better that they don’t), but unless you’re already an eminent literary scholar like Stephen Greenblatt or Christopher Ricks, then it’s probably best that you write your literary analysis more like a well thought-out argument, rather than a personal reflection. 

In other words, use third-person where possible in your English essays, and feature the ‘I’ pronoun sparingly – if at all. There’s also a debate about whether using the first-person collective ‘we’ is acceptable (e.g. “We can infer from Macbeth’s speech that Shakespeare was wary of power’s effects on man.”) Some people think it’s presumptuous – and therefore dangerously collectivising; I actually think it’s marginally better than using ‘I’, but still less preferable to the trusty third-person voice (e.g. “Macbeth’s speech suggests that Shakespeare was wary of power’s effects on man.”)

I mentioned the English literary critic and professor Christopher Ricks, who has been called “the greatest living critic today” by even his most esteemed contemporaries. There’s no better way to learn than to learn from the best, so let’s examine how Ricks writes in a manner that doesn’t compromise the singularity of his views, but still manages to convey objective restraint in thought. 

Christopher Ricks on Tennyson’s ‘Maud’ (from Tennyson)

Best known for his gothic, sentimental poetry, Alfred Lord Tennyson remains one of the most widely read Victorian poets today. His narrative poem, Maud: A Monodrama, tells of the tragic love between the eponymous character and the poem’s speaker. Our focus today is on the analysis, not the poem itself, so I’ll link to the poem here – if you’re interested in Victorian poetry or want to find a poem to practise your close reading skills on, I’d recommend that you give this a read. 

Ricks, in his seminal study on Tennyson, demonstrates real elegance in his commentary on ‘Maud’, an excerpt of which I’ll reproduce below for your reference (and for some, enjoyment): 

[Maud] is a poem about losing someone whom you have never really had. She is at first beautiful, but as a gem, as an epitome of womankind, as a phantasmal pulse, a dreamlike vision:

Cold and clear-cut face, why come you so cruelly meek,
Breaking a slumber in which all spleenful folly was drown’d,
Pale with the golden beam of an eyelash dead on the cheek,
Passionless, pale, cold face, star-sweet on a gloom profound;
Womanlike, taking revenge too deep for a transient wrong
Done but in thought to your beauty, and ever as pale as before
Growing and fading and growing upon me without a sound,
Luminous, gemlike, ghostlike, deathlike, half the night long
Growing and fading and growing, till I could bear it no more,

Among the things which [the speaker] cannot bear about Maud is the dread of her as a unique person; part of him wants her to be a snobbish puppet, part of him tries to divide her as he himself feels divided – 

and adore,
Not her, who is neither courtly nor kind,
Not her, not her, but a voice.

His love never becomes perfect, so it never altogether casts out fear; but it replaces fear and masochism by awe: “And dream of her beauty with tender dread…” – tender, both as sympathetically moved and as touchingly bruisable. Tender dread is never in Maud to be succeeded by the sober certainty of waking bliss; but it is a human advance. For Maud is an unprecedented evocation of a deep fear of love. “And most of all would I flee from the cruel madness of love”: Maud is not a poem which uses the word ‘madness’ lightly; the essential madness is the fear of love, and the hero is thinking not of traditional cheerful pangs, but of the worst psychic cowardice and dismay. What he centrally fears is not that he cannot be loved but that he cannot love. 

Till a morbid hate and horror have grown
Of a world in which I have hardly mixt,
And a morbid eating lichen fixt
On a heart half-turn’d to stone.

‘Hardly’ has a sardonic hardness. “Oh heart of stone, are you flesh, and caught/By that you swore to withstand?” Stone, but without the elegant fiction of statuary, which creates a flickering pun in “Wept over her” in these lines:

She came to the village church,
And sat by a pillar alone;
An angel watching an urn
Wept over her, carved in stone;

So that it is not merely a social snub but an emasculating humiliation which is enforced by the threatening insouciance of Maud’s brother:

But while I past he was humming an air,
Stopt, and then with a riding whip
Leisurely tapping a glossy boot,
And curving a contumelious lip,
Gorgonised me from head to foot
With a stony British stare.

The hideousness of the later debacle is that it forces the hero back into thinking he cannot love: “Courage, poor heart of stone!” he groans, “Courage, poor stupid heart of stone”. 

[…]

‘The Soul of my Rose’ by John Waterman, 1908

While Ricks the person is never too close for comfort to the poem’s distraught speaker, Ricks the critic shows a level of microscopic sensitivity to the poet’s diction and a degree of fraternal empathy in his judicious, but not altogether detached, observation of the speaker’s conflicted emotions. 

Notice as well that he’s able to convey his emotional response to Tennyson’s work without once having to summon the ‘I’ pronoun, or be jarringly explicit about his presence on the poem’s sidelines. 

As an insightful observer of a poetic work, Ricks engages analytically through appreciation and personally through respect, most evidently shown by the constant ‘touchstones’ of quoted lines he uses to guide his commentary. He makes it clear that the critic’s opinion does not override the poet’s narrative. 

This, surely, is no mere ‘analysis’, but intellectual pleasure in hermeneutic action. 

From reading Ricks’ writing, then, it should become clear that using third-person is a good idea when writing English essays, as it enables you to write in a more sophisticated, considered manner, all the while expressing your unique views towards a text. 


A final, but important note

As a final – and important – note, there’s another point to my meta-criticism of Ricks’ reading on Tennyson: reading literary criticism – good literary criticism – is absolutely necessary if you want to get better at writing literary analysis, or at English Literature in general.

While reading primary works (i.e. fiction and poetry) should always be the foundation of literary learning, it is equally important that we grant secondary work (i.e. literary criticism) the attention it deserves, because the act of interpreting literature is an art in itself. 

Mind you, I’m not telling you to consciously mimic the way these critics write; my point is just that the more we read what they say and appreciate the way in which they say it, the more our writing style will take on the intellectual rigour and stylistic sophistication so evident in the prose of people like Ricks. 

Do you use the first-person ‘I’ a lot in your writing? Or are you more partial to third-person? Comment below with your views! 

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