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)

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.

Examples

  • "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)

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 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)