second-person point of view

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Dr. Seuss float
Oh, the Places You'll Go!: Dr. Seuss float in the 124th annual Rose Parade in Pasadena, California (January 2013). (Jerod Harris/WireImage/Getty Images)

Definition

The second-person point of view uses the imperative mood and the pronouns you, your, and yours to address readers or listeners directly.

Though the second-person point of view only rarely serves as a narrative voice in fiction, it does appear in letters, speeches, and other forms of nonfiction, including many types of business writing and technical writing.

The second-person point of view is commonly used in step-by-step instructions--that is, in a directive process analysis that explains how to do or make something.

Here are three examples:


See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "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."
    (Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! Random House, 1990)
     
  • "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."
    (Kurt Vonnegut, "How to Write With Style," 1982)
     
  • "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."
    (Maria Konnikova, "Brain Hacking." The Atlantic, June 2015) 
     
  • "You, as an online consumer, are on your own. You cannot trust the Web’s gatekeepers to protect you from suspicious operators, nor can you rely on an undermanned Federal Trade Commission to keep the Internet’s millions of businesses in line. At least for now, every time you give your credit-card number to an unfamiliar online company, you will have to make a leap of faith."
    (Taylor Clark, "The Dark Lord of the Internet." The Atlantic, January/February 2014)
     
  • "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."
    (Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Harper, 1974)
     
  • Writing Instructions
    "The standard for writing instructions is the second-person singular pronoun, 'you.' While some old-fashioned manuals even avoid 'you' in favor of the passive voice or 'the user,' most contemporary documentation uses 'you' in combination with the imperative voice. . . .

    "The imperative is the command form of the verb without the 'you' included ('Start your engines' not 'You start your engines'). Begin most procedural steps with an imperative, rather than a noun. Using imperatives when you list steps for users to perform makes the instructions easy to read and concise."
    (K.R. Woolever, Writing for the Technical Professions. Pearson, 2005)
     
  • George Carlin's All-Purpose Instructions
    "Release the handle by pulling down the strap and tightening the fasteners. Press the button and remove the safety cap, then turn the knob to unleash the spring and wind the excess slack onto the spool. Loosen the screws on the plate lid and insert the tabs into the slots. Rotate the control switch a quarter of a turn before lowering the two levers. Then drop the main crank into a neutral position. Be careful not to unscrew the housing before engaging the catch. Plug in and you’re set to go. If smoke fills the room, read the troubleshooting guide at the rear of this manual."
    (George Carlin, "Instructions: Follow Carefully." When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? Hyperion, 2004)
     
  • The Conversational You
    "The second-person pronoun (you) lets the author hook the reader as if in conversation. Call it cozy. Call it confiding. 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."
    (Constance Hale, Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose. Random House, 2001)
     
  • Overworking You
    "Careful not to let the 'you' character sound like an outtake from a Humphrey Bogart movie. The second person tone can easily slip into hard-boiled detective mode: 'You approach the door. You knock. You turn the knob. You hold your breath.' Vary your sentence constructions to avoid this pitfall."
    (Monica Wood, Description. Writer's Digest, 1995)
     
  • Second-Person Point-of-View in Sports Writing
    "You’re Don Larsen, the dim-time guy who pitched the perfect game. You’re a midnight kid who doesn’t miss any laughs. It’s one more for the road and no one ever gets sun-burned by a sallow morning sun. But yesterday on a sun-spangled afternoon you achieved everlasting fame in baseball. You pitched a no-hitter, the first in any World Series game, the perfect one because no one reached first base in nine rapid innings. So let them rib you about busting up a past-curfew car in St. Pete last spring. You weren’t hurt and yesterday it was 2-0 against the Dodgers in the fifth game of the World Series in Yankee Stadium."
    (Jimmy Cannon, "Perfect Day for a Dim-Time Guy.” New York Post, October 9, 1956)
     
  • Second-Person Point-of-View in Speeches
    "[W]hen television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland."
    (Newton N. Minow, "Television and the Public Interest." Speech to the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington, D.C., on May 9, 1961)
     
  • Second-Person Point-of-View in Ads
    Here are some [ads] from the . . . New York Times:
    (1) You'll never read a book with greater interest. Earn 5% on your savings with our Golden Passbook Account.

    (2) Amsterdam is a whole lot more than charming canals and historic houses. There, by the beautiful zee, you can watch diamonds being cut, and do some cutting up of your own in some of Europe's sassiest cabarets.

    (3) Break out the frosty bottle, boys, and keep your collins dry!

    (4) Do you know which collar style suits you best? For example, do you need a lower collar? a higher collar? a quarter size collar? Perhaps you want a tapered waistline, or even, an in-between sleeve length.
    Throughout all advertising, whether jocular or not, there is an effort to buttonhole the reader by uses of language that promote a close relation with the speaker. The most obvious device in this direction is simple enough: the second-person pronoun. Note in all our examples the repetition of 'you,' 'your,' as well as the direct appeal of the imperative voice ('break out,' 'keep'). In example 4 above, the stress on 'your' particular needs may be intended as especially flattering. In addition, observe those familiar devices of language that once again create the persona as an easy-going talker-fellow rather than as a writer-fellow. Contractions: 'you'll never read.' Colloquialisms: 'cutting up,' 'sassiest.' The list of short fragmented questions familiar in speech: 'a higher collar?' 'a quarter size collar'?"
    (Walker Gibson, Persona: A Style Study for Readers and Writers. Random House, 1969)