Person in Grammar

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

grammatical person
In traditional grammar, English is said to have three persons, identified simply as first, second, and third. Stockbyte/Getty Images

In English grammar, the category of person identifies the relationship between a subject and its verb, showing whether the subject is speaking about itself (first person--I or we); being spoken to (second person--you); or being spoken about (third person--he, she, it, or they). Also called grammatical person.

Personal pronouns are so called because they are the pronouns to which the grammatical system of person applies.

Reflexive pronouns, intensive pronouns, and possessive determiners also show distinctions in person.

Examples and Observations

  • "A widely attested type of verbal inflection in human language involves person--a category that typically distinguishes among the first person (the speaker), the second person (the addressee), and the third person (anyone else). In many languages, the verb is marked for both person and number (singular or plural) of the subject. When one category is inflected for properties (such as person and number) of another, the first category is said to agree with the second. . . ."

    "Modern English has a [comparatively] impoverished system of person and number agreement in the verb, and an inflectional affix is used only for the third person singular in the non-past tense."
    (William O'Grady, et al. Contemporary Linguistics: An Introduction. Bedford, 2001)
  • "I am
    You are
    We are Australian."
    (B. Woodley and D. Newton, "I Am Australian")
  • "I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together."
    (John Lennon and Paul McCartney, "I Am the Walrus")

The Three Persons in English (present tense)

First person

  • "I see great things in baseball."
    (Walt Whitman)
  • "We see things as we are."
    (Leo Rosten)
  • Second person
    "You see things, and you say 'Why?'"
    (George Bernard Shaw)

    Third person

    • "She sees more hospices and sink estates than most people."
      (Prince Andrew)
    • "The traveler sees what he sees; the tourist sees what he has come to see."
      (G.K. Chesterton)
    • "[M]urder is always a mistake. One should never do anything that one cannot talk about after dinner."
      (Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1890)
    • "Love is not blind: it sees more, not less."
      (Julius Gordon)
    • "They see me as some sort of pathetic character."
      (Mike Tyson)

    The Forms of Be

    • "​Be is unique among English verbs in having three distinctive person forms in the present tense (am, is, are) and two in the past tense (was, were). Other verbs have a distinctive form only for the third person singular of the present tense (e.g., has, does, wants, etc., as opposed to have, do, want, etc.)." (Bas Aarts, Sylvia Chalker, and Edmund Weiner, The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2014)

    Etymology

    From the Latin, "mask"