Point of View in Grammar and Composition

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Point of view

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Point of view is the perspective from which a speaker or writer recounts a narrative or presents information. Also known as a viewpoint.

Depending on the topic, purpose, and audience, writers of nonfiction may rely on the first-person point of view (I, we), the second-person (you, your, you're), or the third-person (he, she, it, they).

Author Lee Gutkind points out that point of view is "innately tied to voice, and a strong, well-executed point of view will also lead to a strong voice" (Keep It Real, 2008).

Examples and Observations

"Point of view is the place from which a writer listens in and watches. Choosing one place over another determines what can and can't be seen, what minds can and can't be entered. . . .

"The main choice, of course, is between the third and first person, between a disembodied voice and 'I' (in nonfiction synonymous with the author). For some, the choice is made before sitting down to write. Some writers feel obliged to use the third person, by tradition the voice of objectivity, the disinterested mode of address appropriate for the newspaper or for history. Other writers, by contrast, seem to adopt the first person as a reflex, even if they are not writing autobiographically. But choosing a point of view really is a choice fundamental to the construction of nonfiction narratives, thus carrying relevant consequences. No moral superiority inheres in the first or third person, in their many varieties, but the wrong choice can deaden a story or distort it enough to turn it into a lie, sometimes a lie composed of facts."
(Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction. Random House, 2013)

Subjective and Objective Viewpoints

"Pronouns reflect the various viewpoints. You can choose first-person (I, me, us, our), second person (you), or third person (he, she, they, their). First-person is considered intense, subjective, and emotionally hot. It is the natural choice for a memoir, autobiography, and most personal-experience essays. The reader is the center of attention for second-person. It is the favored point of view for instructional material, advice, and sometimes admonishment! It is intimate without being intense--unless the 'voice' of the author is authoritarian or controlling instead of instructive. . . .

"Third person can be subjective or objective. For instance, when used for an 'as told to' personal-experience essay, third-person is subjective and warm. When used for news and information, third-person is objective and cool." (Elizabeth Lyon, A Writer's Guide to Nonfiction. Perigee, 2003)

The First-Person Narrator

"It's hard to write a memoir or a personal essay without falling back on the 'I.' In fact, all nonfiction is really told in the technical first-person point of view: there is always a narrator doing the telling, and the narrator is not some fictional persona but the author.

"This single point of view is one of the important—and frustrating—hallmarks that distinguishes nonfiction from fiction.

"Yet there are ways to mimic other points of view--and thereby to tell a more natural sort of story.

"Listen to the opening lines of Daniel Bergner's God of the Rodeo: 'When he had finished work--building fence or penning cattle or castrating bull calves with a knife supplied by his boss on the prison farm--Johnny Brooks lingered in the saddle shed. The small cinder-block building is near the heart of Angola, Louisiana's maximum-security state penitentiary. Alone there, Brooks placed his saddle on the wooden rack in the middle of the room, leapt onto it, and imagined himself riding in the inmate rodeo coming up in October.'

"No sign yet of the author—a strictly third-person presentation. . . . The author won't enter the story directly for many more lines; he'll duck in once to let us know he's there and then disappear for long stretches . . ..

"But in fact, of course, the author has been with us in every line, in the second way that an author participates in a nonfiction story: tone." (Philip Gerard, "Talking Yourself Out of the Story: Narrative Stance and the Upright Pronoun." Writing Creative Nonfiction, ed. by Carolyn Forché and Philip Gerard. Writer's Digest Books, 2001)

Point of View and Persona

"[T]hese issues of point of view really point to one of the most fundamental skills in creative nonfiction, to writing not as the 'author' but from a constructed persona, even if that persona is taking on the 'I' to tell the story. That persona is formed by time, mood, and distance from the events that are being narrated. And if we decide to foreground the artifice of this construction by using more stylized points of view, such as second- or third-person, we create even more of a relationship between the narrator and the narrated, a high awareness that we are engaged in the reconstruction of experience and not pretending to be mere transcribers of that experience." (Lee Gutkind and Hattie Fletcher Buck, Keep It Real: Everything You Need to Know About Researching and Writing Creative Nonfiction. W.W. Norton, 2008)

Obi-Wan Kenobi on Point of View

Obi-Wan: So, what I told you was true . . . from a certain point of view.

Luke: A certain point of view?

Obi-Wan: Luke, you're going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.

(Star Wars: Episode VI--Return of the Jedi, 1983)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Point of View in Grammar and Composition." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/point-of-view-grammar-and-composition-1691652. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Point of View in Grammar and Composition. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/point-of-view-grammar-and-composition-1691652 Nordquist, Richard. "Point of View in Grammar and Composition." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/point-of-view-grammar-and-composition-1691652 (accessed May 29, 2023).