Friday, August 26, 2011

Second Person Point of View

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

Student: Ya know how when you forget to do your homework and your teacher has an attitude about it? Well, you probably just show her what you think about that raised eyebrow by raisin’ one of your fingers in salute!

Me: No, I don’t know about forgetting to do my homework or failing to meet any other deadline because either I do what needs to be done, no matter how much sleep or fun I lose, or I admit my error. And, even though that raised eyebrow might irritate me, I still wouldn’t burn bridges or risk more consequences by saluting with any of my fingers.

The brief conversation above illustrates what’s wrong with second person POV, especially these days. Countless speakers, at least in the U. S., shift responsibility away from themselves to the amorphous and ubiquitous “you.” Instead of telling a personal story using first person POV, the speaker skips sideways and tells HIS OWN story about “you” as if you have done or will do the same.

The reply illustrates that “you” has been misplaced. The person listening does not have the same opinions or attitudes, and she doesn’t commit the same actions as the speaker.

The reply also illustrates one of the worst uses for second person POV currently in vogue. Avoid it! Start thinking about what you’re saying when you find yourself using “you.” Does the word truly apply to the person to whom you write or speak?

Some uses of “you” are very appropriate. One use is when giving a command. For example:

• Shut the door.
• Pick up your coat, please.
• Buy tickets at the door.
• Complete step 1 before attempting step 2.


Each of these has an implied or understood subject for the verbs “shut,” “pick,” “buy,” and “complete.” In other words, each of these sentences could be written as:

• You shut the door.
• You pick up your coat, please.
• You buy tickets at the door.
• You complete step 1 before attempting step 2.

Another excellent use for second person POV is when giving instructions
.

In order to make the perfect peanut butter sandwich, assemble the following items:

1. One sandwich plate.
2. One table knife.
3. 2 slices of white, wheat, all-grain, or gluten-free bread.
4. A jar of peanut butter, the brand of your choice, smooth or crunchy. (You may also substitute cashew, almond, or other nut pureed and even Nutella.)

Place one slice of bread on the plate. Open the jar of nut spread and set the lid aside. Pick up the knife and dip it into the jar to extract about one tablespoon of spread. With the knife, smear the peanut butter onto the surface of the bread from edge to edge. You may use the knife to gather more spread and add it until you have the quantity desired. When you have finished spreading the butter on the first slice of bread, put the knife into the sink or dishwasher after rinsing it well, replace the lid on the jar of butter, put the sealed jar back on the pantry shelf, and place the second slice of bread on top of the first slice, now spread with peanut butter. You may eat at will.

Some people prefer to eat peanut butter sandwiches without crusts. In this case, place the second slice of bread on top of the spread before retiring the knife to be sterilized, then cut off the crusts, saving them to make salad croutons or to feed birds. You may also throw away the crusts.

Some people enjoy jam or jelly with their peanut butter. In this event, rinse the knife before inserting it into the jar of jam or jelly, then spread the quantity desired across the nut butter before placing the second slice of bread over the sandwich fillings.

Some people enjoy sliced banana, crisp bacon, and other sundry additions to their peanut butter sandwiches. Some have even reported crumbling potato chips on top of the nut spread before closing the sandwich with the second slice of bread.

Finally, many people like to cut their sandwiches into two triangles by slicing diagonally across the bread. Others like rectangular cuts, made by using the knife to slice across the midline vertically or horizontally. A few people prefer four evenly sized sandwiches made by slicing the bread across the midline vertically and horizontally.


In the example above, a self-reported peanut-butter sandwich expert has delivered step-by-step instructions to an audience of “you.” Whether directing one other person or a large crowd, the writer writes to “you” so that you can follow the directions and succeed.

Published authors occasionally use second person POV just as the miscreant student did in my opening example and for the same reason. The author wants you, the reader, to identify with the actions and thoughts of the character. He wants you to relate to his character and subject matter more intimately. One such book is Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerny.

Jeffrey Eugenides speaks directly to readers occasionally in his Pulitzer-prize winning novel, Middlesex, addressing the reader as “dear reader” or “you.” This is comparable to moments in plays and films when the character breaks the “fourth wall,” the invisible one that allows audiences to spy upon the actions of the characters, in order to speak directly to the audience. Mel Brooks makes use of such direct addresses to comic effect.

Few works of fiction employ second person, however. Its best use is in non-fiction because “you” (the reader or listener) is not the same person with the same motives or history as any other person or character. Such misattribution merely confuses rather than clarifies.

Reading Challenge:

Read all or part of Bright Lights, Big City to distinguish second-person POV from first and third.

Writing Challenge:

Write an over-the-top, extremely detailed set of instructions for an activity (making food, washing a load of towels in an automatic washer, putting on a coat, etc.). Try to think of all tangents, contingencies, requirements, and possibilities, then order them clearly.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

I had a brief run as a proofreader while teaching seniors. Schools labor to print every seniors’ name correctly—just as it appears on each senior’s birth certificate—so that the diploma and the Commencement program will be keepsakes that make students and parents proud. I noticed that the secretaries charged with typing the lists ignored diacritical marks (accents that guide pronunciation and become part of correct spelling) or simply added a stray apostrophe, hoping that it might suffice.

Allow me to show you what I mean:

• Student Name Correctly Spelled: Desiré René Umlaüt
• One Type of Error: Desire’ Rene’ Umlaut
• Another, More Common Error: Desire Rene Umlaut

What the secretary did not know is what many keyboard users do not know: the use of symbols. In Word, simply choose “Insert” from the top horizontal ribbon of drop-down menus. Once you see the menu, choose “Symbol,” then search the available symbols and special characters for what you need. Be sure your cursor is ready and poised at the point of insertion, then click on the symbol to highlight or select it, click on the box labeled “Insert,” and finally, click on the box labeled “Close.” You will have inserted the correct diacritical markings to spell the name correctly.

A word that Word automatically marks for keyboard users is “café.” Just type it and move on to the next letter or punctuation mark. An accent will appear for you. Other words that Word will handle for you are cliché, protégé, and fiancé. Just type each word without the accent mark and when you move on to the next character, an accent mark will have magically inserted itself.

Other words such as resume do not automatically insert the correct accents. Word seems to have decided that two accents in one word is two too many so it adds none. Nevertheless, when you submit a resume for employment, you should spell it correctly: résumé. To do so, use the method I described above: choose “Insert,” then “Symbol,” etc. or you can take advantage of “Tools.” Spell “résumé” as “resuma,” highlight it, and choose “Spelling and Grammar” under “Tools.” Word will provide you with résumé so that you can click “Change”—and change to the correct spelling.

Word will also add diacritical marks for naïve and piñata, but not for noel and nino. The first, noel, is easily read without the mark, but nino may look like a typographical error without one. Simply insert from the Symbol menu to write naïve and niño. For this last word, a Spanish one for child, especially a boy child, the Word dictionary includes Niño as in El Nino, the climate phenomenon, but not niño, the word for child.