What is Second-Person Point of View in Literature?

Definition and best practices for using second-person POV in writing

Writing on paper

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The second-person point of view uses the imperative mood and the pronouns you, your, and yours to address readers or listeners directly. While the second-person point of view is a rare stylistic choice for narrative voice in fiction, it does appear in letters, speeches, and other forms of nonfiction, including many types of business and technical writing.

Understanding and Usage of Second-Person POV

"Sin and Syntax" author Constance Hale offers these thoughts on why a second-person point of view works so well: "The second-person pronoun (you) lets the author hook the reader as if in conversation. Call it cozy. Call it confiding," she writes. "You is a favorite of the Plain English folks, who view it as an antidote to the stiff impersonality of legalese and urge bureaucrats to write as if speaking to the public."

As effective as second-person can be, however, there are some caveats to consider, especially when it comes to the tone of your writing. Novelist and guide-to-fiction-writing author Monica Wood cautions that writers must take care "not to let the 'you' character sound like an outtake from a Humphrey Bogart movie... The second person one can easily slip into hard-boiled detective mode: 'You approach the door. You knock. You turn the knob. You hold your breath.'" Wood says the best way to avoid this pitfall is to "[vary] your sentence constructions."

Second-Person POV in Advertising and Politics

Advertising is a medium in which the second-person point of view is frequently leveraged as a marketing tool. Advertisers employ specific language designed to mirror personal, rather than business relationships in an attempt to set off consumers' emotional triggers—vanity, fear, or even altruism—in order to create an urgent need to act (as in buy) in response.

Advertising copywriters often rely on second-person pronouns paired with the imperative voice to hammer a messages home, and routinely pepper their phrasing with contractions and colloquialisms to make copy sound as if it had been written in the persona of a peer or colleague, rather than by someone targeting a potential consumer. Here are just a few examples of this strategy:

  • "For all you do, this Bud's for you."—Budweiser
  • "Betcha Can't Eat Just One."—Lay's Potato Chips
  • "Because You're Worth It.—L'Oréal Paris

Political campaigns turning to second-person for both exigence rhetoric and anti-rhetoric aimed at voters' deep-seated beliefs and sympathies—as well as their outrage, prejudices, and frustrations—is nothing new. Back in 1888, Ulysses S. Grant's presidential campaign slogan was “Vote as You Shot.”

Second-Person Point of View, Example I

"You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go."—From "Oh, the Places You’ll Go!" by Dr. Seuss

Second-Person Point of View, Example II

"When you yourself put words on paper, remember that the most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not. Don’t you yourself like or dislike writers mainly for what they choose to show you or make you think about? Did you ever admire an empty-headed writer for his or her mastery of the language? No. So your own winning literary style must begin with interesting ideas in your head. Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about."—From "How to Write With Style" by Kurt Vonnegut

Second-Person Point of View, Example III

"Consider what you could do with a chip in your ​head that linked directly to the Internet: Within milliseconds, you could retrieve just about any piece of information. And with the collective knowledge of the Web at your disposal, you could quickly fill in your brain’s normal memory gaps—no one would ever guess you slept through that economics seminar."—From "Brain Hacking" by Maria Konnikova in the Atlantic, June 2015 

Second-Person Point of View, Example IV

"You are a sculptor. You climb a great ladder; you pour grease all over a growing longleaf pine. Next, you build a hollow cylinder like a cofferdam around the entire pine, and grease its inside walls. You climb your ladder and spend the next week pouring wet plaster into the cofferdam, over and inside the pine. You wait; the plaster hardens. Now open the walls of the dam, split the plaster, saw down the tree, remove it, discard, and your intricate sculpture is ready: this is the shape of part of the air."—From "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" by Annie Dillard

Sources

  • Hale, Constance. "Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose." Random House. 2001
  • Wood, Monica. "Description." Writer's Digest Books. 1995
  • Gibson, Walker. "Persona: A Style Study for Readers and Writers." Random House. 1969