18th June 2020
Writing Tips: When to Use the Second Person
Of all the grammatical persons, second person may be the most underappreciated. But what is the second person exactly? And when should you use it in your writing? In this blog post, we offer some suggestions.
What Is the Second Person?
In basic terms, grammatical person is how we tell the difference between the person speaking (i.e., the first person), the person being spoken to (i.e., the second person), and everything else (i.e., the third person). We can see this in the types of personal pronouns someone uses in their writing:
First Person: I am going home.
Second Person: You are going home.
Third Person: She is going home.
As shown above, the second person uses pronouns like “you” and “yours.” You can thus use it to address the listener or reader directly.
The second person is quite rare in formal and creative writing, where the first person and third person are far more common. But there are some cases where using it can enhance your writing, as we will discuss below.
Instructions and Recipes
If you are writing directions or instructions for something, the second person will help ensure clarity. This is particularly true when listing steps in a process. For instance, you might see it used in a recipe:
To make our apple and cinnamon cake:
- Pre-heat the oven to 350°F (200°C).
- Line a cake tin and grease the bottom.
- Melt the butter in a large pan.
- Beat the egg until it is frothy.
- Mix in the caster sugar…
Here, we offer simple, concise instructions addressed directly to the reader. Note that the “you” above is implicit (i.e., we are addressing the reader in the imperative, but we do not use the word “you”).
If we were to rewrite this in the third person, though, it would say:
To make our apple and cinnamon cake:
- The oven should be pre-heated to 350°F (200°C).
- A cake tin should be lined and the bottom greased.
- The butter should be melted in a large pan.
- The egg should be beaten until it is frothy.
- The caster sugar should be mixed in…
In this case, we do not address the reader directly, focusing instead on the what needs to be done to the equipment and ingredients. But the result is longer and less clear, so you can see why most recipes don’t do this!
Advertising and Copy Writing
You will also see the second person used a lot in copy writing and advertising. This is because addressing the reader helps to create a personal connection. We do this in our blog posts, as you may have noticed!
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This is important in advertising as it helps brands connect with customers. We see this in slogans that encourage readers to act or think in a certain way, such as “Have It Your Way” (Burger King) or “Think Different” (Apple).
Some adverts also pose questions in the second person:
Do you want to lose weight fast and make £££ from home?
The aim is to project a personal relationship with customers: i.e., to address each reader as an individual whose needs your company can meet.
Persuasive Writing and Speeches
The second person is also common in persuasive writing and speeches, especially when the aim is to directly convince the audience of something.
As with advertising, this is because the second person helps to create a connection with an audience: e.g., I’m not just talking about how recycling is good for the environment; I’m talking about how you can make a difference.
However, there are two provisos to note here:
- The second person can seem accusatory (e.g., if we were talking about some negative behavior, such as a prejudice, saying “you” too much could seem like we’re accusing our reader of the behavior in question).
- Using “you” too much can create a divide between the author/speaker and the audience, which may seem like you are speaking down to them.
Thus, the plural first person (e.g., we, us) is a better choice in some cases.
Lyrics and Literature
Finally, we should look at the second person in creative writing. It is quite common in poetry and song lyrics, for instance, which are often addressed to a “you” (either the reader themselves or an imagined interlocutor).
The second person is also useful for creative works in which the reader is the protagonist, such as text-based video games or choose-your-own-adventure stories, where the “you” is the player.
More rarely, authors will write part of or even an entire novel in the second person. The aim here is to create a strong connection between the narrator and the reader (i.e., to make it as if they are reading about themselves). However, it is a challenging technique and not suitable for every story.
Whatever you’re writing though, don’t forget to have it proofread!
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