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third-person point of view

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third-person point of view

Thomas S. Kane and Leonard J. Peters, Writing Prose: Techniques and Purposes (Oxford University Press, 1986)

Definition:

The use of third-person pronouns such as he, she, and they to relate events in a work of fiction or nonfiction.

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 also:

Observations:

  • "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)
Also Known As: impersonal point of view, impersonal discourse
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