third-person point of view

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Jack and the Beanstalk
Traditionally, the third-person point of view is the voice of the storyteller: "Once upon a time there was a poor widow who lived in a little cottage with her only son Jack . . ." ("Jack and the Beanstalk"). Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Definition

In a work of fiction or nonfiction,third-person point of view relates events using third-person pronouns such as he, she, and they.

There are three main types of third-person point of view:

  • Third-Person Objective: the facts of a narrative are reported by a seemingly neutral, impersonal observer or recorder. For an example, see "The Rise of Pancho Villa" by John Reed.
  • Third-Person Omniscient: an all-knowing narrator not only reports the facts but may also interpret events and relate the thoughts and feelings of any character. The novels Middlemarch by George Eliot and Charlotte's Web by E.B. White employ the third-person-omniscient point of view.
  • Third-Person Limited: a narrator reports the facts and interprets events from the perspective of a single character. For an example, see Katherine Mansfield's short story "Miss Brill."

In addition, a writer may rely on a multiple or variable third-person point of view, in which the perspective shifts from that of one character to another during the course of a narrative.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "At the age of seventeen I was poorly dressed and funny-looking, and went around thinking about myself in the third person. 'Allen Dow strode down the street and home.' 'Allen Dow smiled a thin sardonic smile.'"
    (John Updike, "Flight." The Early Stories: 1953-1975. Random House, 2003)
     
  • "They all remembered, or thought they remembered, how they had seen Snowball charging ahead of them at the Battle of the Cowshed, how he had rallied and encouraged them at every turn, and how he had not paused for an instant even when the pellets from Jones's gun had wounded his back."
    (George Orwell, Animal Farm, 1945)
     
  • "The goose shouted to the nearest cow that Wilbur was free, and soon all the cows knew. Then one of the cows told one of the sheep, and soon all the sheep knew. The lambs learned about it from their mothers. The horses, in their stalls in the barn, pricked up their ears when they heard the goose hollering; and soon the horses had caught on to what was happening."
    (E.B. White, Charlotte's Web. Harper, 1952)
     
  • The Writer as Movie Camera
    "Third-person point of view allows the author to be like a movie camera moving to any set and recording any event, as long as one of the characters is lugging the camera. It also allows the camera to slide behind the eyes of any character, but beware--do it too often or awkwardly, and you will lose your reader very quickly. When using third person, don't get in your characters' heads to show the reader their thoughts, but rather let their actions and words lead the reader to figure those thoughts out."
    (Bob Mayer, The Novel Writer's Toolkit: A Guide to Writing Novels and Getting Published. Writer's Digest Books, 2003)
  • Third Person in Nonfiction
    "In nonfiction, the third-person point of view is not so much omniscient as objective. It's the preferred point of view for reports, research papers, or articles about a specific subject or cast of characters. It's best for business missives, brochures, and letters on behalf of a group or institution. See how a slight shift in point of view creates enough of a difference to raise eyebrows over the second of these two sentences: 'Victoria's Secret would like to offer you a discount on all bras and panties.' (Nice, impersonal third person.) 'I would like to offer you a discount on all bras and panties.' (Hmmm. What's the intent there?) . . .

    "Unabashed subjectivity may be fine for ever-popular memoirs on incest and inside-the-Beltway intrigue, but the third-person point of view remains the standard in news reporting and writing that aims to inform, because it keeps the focus off the writer and on the subject."
    (Constance Hale, Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose. Random House, 1999)
  • The Authority of Third-Person Point of View
    "Third-person voice establishes the greatest possible distance between writer and reader. Use of this grammatical person announces that its author, for whatever reasons, cannot afford too much intimacy with an audience. Third person is appropriate when a rhetor wishes to establishes herself as an authority or when she wishes to efface her voice so that the issue may seem to be presented as objectively as possible. In third-person discourse the relationship of both rhetor and audience to the issue being discussed is more important than the relation between them. . . .

    "Students often use third person when they write for teachers on the correct assumptions that the formal distance leads authority to their work and that it is appropriate for the rhetorical situation that obtains in most classrooms."
    (Sharon Crowley and Debra Hawhee, Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students, 3rd ed. Pearson, 2004)
  • Personal and Impersonal Discourse
    "The terms 'third-person narrative' and 'first-person narrative' are misnomers, as they imply the complete absence of first-person pronouns within 'third-person narratives.' . . . [Nomi] Tamir (1976) suggests replacing the inadequate terminology 'first- and third-person narration' by personal and impersonal discourse, respectively. If the narrator/formal speaker of a text refers to himself/herself (i.e. if the narrator is a participant in the events he/she is narrating), then the text is considered to be personal discourse, according to Tamir. If, on the other hand, the narrator/formal speaker does not refer to himself/herself in the discourse, then the text is considered to be impersonal discourse."
    (Susan Ehrlich, Point of View. Routledge, 1990)
     
  • Illeism

    Dr. Isobel "Izzie" Stevens: Izzie and Alex have a patient that only speaks about himself in the third person.

    Dr. Alex Karev: They thought it was annoying at first, but now they kind of like it.
    (Katherine Heigl and Justin Chambers in "Staring at the Sun." Grey's Anatomy, 2006)

Also Known As: impersonal point of view, impersonal discourse