First-Person Point of View

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

first-person point of view
A nonfiction narrative told from the first-person point of view is related by the author, who addresses the reader directly and uses first-person pronouns such as I, me,, and mine. (sdominick/Getty Images)

In a work of fiction (a short story or novel) or nonfiction (such as an essay, memoir, or autobiography), first-person point of view uses I, me, and other first-person pronouns to relate the thoughts, experiences, and observations of a narrator or a writer's persona. Also known as first-person narrative, personal point of view, or personal discourse.

Most of the texts in our collection of Classic British and American Essays rely on the first-person point of view.

See, for instance, "How It Feels to Be Colored Me," by Zora Neale Hurston, and "What Life Means to Me," by Jack London.

​Examples and Observations

  • "In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people–the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me. I was sub-divisional police officer of the town, and in an aimless, petty kind of way anti-European feeling was very bitter."
    (George Orwell, opening sentences of "Shooting an Elephant," 1936)
     
  • "One summer, along about 1904, my father rented a camp on a lake in Maine and took us all there for the month of August. We all got ringworm from some kittens and had to rub Pond's Extract on our arms and legs night and morning, and my father rolled over in a canoe with all his clothes on; but outside of that the vacation was a success and from then on none of us ever thought there was any place in the world like that lake in Maine."
    (E.B. White, opening sentences of "Once More to the Lake," 1941)
     
  • "In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking."
    (Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854)
     
  • "That's one thing I love about the first-person: It's such a great place to hide, especially with essays."
    (Sarah Vowell, interviewed by Dave in "The Incredible, Entertaining Sarah Vowell." PowellsBooks.Blog, May 31, 2005)

    The First Person in Technical Writing

    • "Many people think they should avoid the pronoun I in technical writing. Such practice, however, often leads to awkward sentences, with people referring to themselves in the third person as one or as the writer instead of as I.
      One [substitute I] can only conclude that the absorption rate is too fast.
      However, do not use the personal point of view when an impersonal point of view would be more appropriate or more effective because you need to emphasize the subject matter over the writer or the reader. In the following example, it does not help to personalize the situation; in fact, the impersonal version may be more tactful.
      Personal
      I received objections to my proposal from several of your managers.

      Impersonal
      Several managers have raised objections to the proposal.
      Whether you adopt a personal or an impersonal point of view depends on the purpose and the readers of the document."
      (Gerald J. Alred et al., Handbook of Technical Writing. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2006)|

    Self-Expression vs. Self-Indulgence

    • "While personal narrative does usually rely on strong voice for success, not all narratives need be personal, and many become muddled by the ill-considered use of the first person. . . .

      "The line between self-expression and self-indulgence can be hard to discern. Test every temptation to use I, and try other devices if you care about voice."
      (Constance Hale, Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose. Broadway Books, 1999)


      "Stay out of the story unless you affect it in some crucial way. Keep your eye on the material, not the mirror."
      (William Ruehlmann, Stalking the Feature Story. Vintage Books, 1978)

      The First Person Plural

      • "There are three sorts of we in business. There is the we that executives use to show that everyone is one happy family. There is the new fashionable we about crowds and social networks. And there is the traditional we that refers to we, the workers.

        "The first we is phoney and to be avoided. The second is interesting, if a little overrated. The third, though deeply unfashionable, is essential, and any manager who doesn’t understand it isn’t going to get anywhere. . . .

        "By far my favourite is We #3, which is the natural, colloquial we used by a group of workers."
        (Lucy Kellaway, "We Are Not Family." Financial Times, Aug. 20, 2007)

      The Demands of the First Person Singular

      • "The thoroughgoing first person is a demanding mode. It asks for the literary equivalent of perfect pitch. Even good writers occasionally lose control of their tone and let a self-congratulatory quality slip in. Eager to explain that their heart is in the right place, they baldly state that they care deeply about matters with which they appear to be only marginally acquainted. Pretending to confess to their bad behavior, they revel in their colorfulness. Insistently describing their own biases, they make it all too obvious that they wish to appear uncommonly reliable. Obviously, the first person doesn't guarantee honesty. Just because they are committing words to paper does not mean that writers stop telling themselves the lies that they've invented for getting through the night. Not everyone has Montaigne's gift for candor. Certainly some people are less likely to write honestly about themselves than about anyone else on earth."
        (Tracy Kidder, Introduction. The Best American Essays 1994. Ticknor & Fields, 1994)

        The Lighter Side of the First Person

        • "If there were a verb meaning 'to believe falsely,' it would not have any significant first-person, present indicative."
          (Ludwig Wittgenstein)