Using and Maintaining the Right “Person” in English Grammar

By Geraldine Woods

Loyalty in grammar relates to what grammarians call person. In first person, the subject narrates the story: In other words, I or we acts as the subject of the sentence. In second person, the subject is being spoken to, and you (either singular or plural) is the subject. In third person, the subject is being spoken about, using he, she, it, they, or any other word that talks about someone or something.

To be grammatically loyal, don’t start out talking from the point of view of one person and then switch to another point of view in a sentence, unless you have a valid reason for doing so. Here’s an example of an unnecessary shift in person:

To celebrate his marriage, Larry promised amnesty to all the criminals currently in his jails because you need to do something spectacular on such important occasions.

The first part of the sentence talks about Larry, so it’s in third person. The second part of the sentence, which begins with the word because, shifts to you (second person). Making the correction is simple:

To celebrate his marriage, Larry promised amnesty to all the criminals currently in his jails because he needs to do something spectacular on such an important occasion.

or

To celebrate his marriage, Larry promised amnesty to all the criminals currently in his jails because everyone needs to do something spectacular on such important occasions.

or

To celebrate his marriage, Larry promised amnesty to all the criminals currently in his jails because a ruler needs to do something spectacular on such important occasions.

All three of the preceding sentences are correct. Why? In the first, Larry is the subject of the first part of the sentence, and he is the subject of the second part. No problem. In the second correction, Larry (third person) is matched with everyone (a third-person pronoun). In the third correction example, third-person Larry is followed by ruler, another third-person noun.

Time for another round:

WRONG: I am planning to pick up those coins; you can’t pass up a chance for free money!

WHY IT’S WRONG: The first part of the sentence is in first person (I), and the second part of the sentence shifts to you, the second person form. Why shift?

RIGHT: I am planning to pick up those coins; I can’t pass up a chance for free money!

ALSO RIGHT: I am planning to pick up those coins because no one can pass up a chance for free money.

WHY IT’S ALSO RIGHT: The shift here is from first person (I) to third (no one). This shift works because the speaker (I) is placing him- or herself in the context of a group.

Make sure your sentences are consistent in person. Unless there’s a logical reason to shift, follow these guidelines:

  • If you begin with first person (I or me), stay in first person.
  • If you begin with second person (you), stay in second person.
  • If you begin with third person, talking about someone or something, make sure that you continue to talk about someone or something.

Which sentence is correct?

A. Whenever a person breaks a grammar rule, you get into trouble.

B. Whenever a person breaks a grammar rule, he or she gets into trouble.

C. Whenever a person breaks a grammar rule, they get into trouble.

Answer: Sentence B is correct. A person matches he or she because both talk about someone. In sentence A, a person does not match you. Sentence A shifts from third to second person for no logical reason. Sentence C is complicated. It stays in third person, talking about someone, but a person is singular and they is plural — sort of. For many centuries, grammarians and writers matched they with pronouns such as someone, everybody, and so forth, as well as with singular nouns with no obvious gender (clerk, doctor, teacher, for example). Then a well-meaning but misguided push to make they, their, them exclusively plural took place. Teachers and grammarians proclaimed that these pronouns couldn’t pair up with singular nouns or other singular pronouns — not in formal English, anyway. The problem, of course, is that English needs a singular, nongendered pronoun to refer to a human being. So they is making a comeback as a singular pronoun.