Style: Person and Speech
English can be written or spoken in three persons: the first person I; the second person you; and the third person he, she and it. In narrative, the
author has the choice of writing in the first or third person; she will either narrate the story through a central character using I, while referring to
all other characters in the third person, or take a more detached point of view, referring to all characters in the third person.
In first-person narrative, the formality or informality of the prose will be determined by the education of the narrating character. Salinger’s Holden
Caulfield, for example, speaks informally with occasional slang –
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want
to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and
how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that
David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you
want to know the truth.
(J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye)1
That other fictional character of whom he speaks, on the other hand, is more precise –
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that
station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
(Charles Dickens, David Copperfield)
Note that Salinger also chooses to address the reader directly in the second person (If you really want to hear about it), but this Dear reader device
can appear archaic and amateurish unless handled well.
In other kinds of script, the first and second persons are usually confined to informal English. The reason is that informal writing tends to be more
personal than formal writing, and the identities of the reader and writer are consequently more important –
What a wonderful surprise I had when I opened your parcel. You always
seem to know just what to buy me for my birthday…
But in most formal scripts, what is being written is more important than who the writer and reader are, and the intimate uses of I and you are
therefore less appropriate. Exceptions, however, include business letters, which use both the first and second persons –
Dear Mr Jones
I am pleased to inform you that the refund you requested for your recently
purchased CD player has been granted, and I enclose a cheque for…
and sets of instructions, or how-to manuals, which use the second person only –
Before attempting to install,* check that the electronic ignition system is
functioning safely. *Fit the battery to the ignition block located below the
burner tray. The positive (+) terminal is to the right as you insert.
* You understood
(For the use of person in academic works, see essays.)
Speech can be direct or indirect. Direct speech is quoted speech: ‘Up Guards, and at ’em!' Indirect speech is reported speech: Wellington ordered
his guards to attack.
With the exception of authors' quotations, direct speech is rarely encountered in exposition. It is more subjective and emotional than indirect speech,
which is precisely why it is better suited to narrative. It is also frequently encountered in conversation, but is not advisable even in this capacity if we
want to remain fair minded. Compare, for example, the stories we hear in everyday conversation. One person will say –
I saw Paul yesterday and told him what I thought of his behaviour at the
party. At first, he pretended not to know what I meant, but when I
reminded him of the way he’d spoken to Margaret, he had the decency
Another will tell us –
I saw Paul yesterday.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘and what do you have to say for yourself?’
‘What do you mean?’ he said.
‘You know very well what I mean,’ I said. ‘The things you said to
Margaret at the party!’
You should have seen him blush.
The first speaker uses indirect speech, reporting what was said rather than quoting. We are told that Paul was spoken to in a critical manner, but
not what was actually said, so that while Paul's behaviour is being roundly condemned, the speaker seems to offer us an opportunity to disagree:
Yes, Paul can be a bit like that but…
The second speaker, on the other hand, uses direct speech and, though probably less well educated than the first, makes a stronger impact on us
with a novelistic dialogue that is the product either of an extraordinary memory or the ability to improvise. We feel a drama unfolding and are apt to
listen more attentively, perhaps becoming more receptive to the speaker’s annoyance with Paul. The drawback is that any virtues Paul might possess
become difficult to raise without risking offence.
What goes for speech goes for writing. Do we want to appeal to the reader’s emotions or to his reason? When he begins a novel, the reader expects
to become emotionally involved with the characters, and direct speech is one of the writer’s techniques to help create that involvement. Fiction, in
fact, practically demands some direct speech; no mainstream novel can hope to engage its readers without its characters actually saying something.
But when the reader puts his novel aside and picks up a professional journal or turns on the radio for the latest news, he expects to be enlightened
rather than entertained, and the emotive, conversational style of direct speech becomes intrusive.
The norm for formal exposition, then, is indirect speech. It is relatively detached, more rational and more tolerant of disagreement. Direct speech, by
contrast, can give the impression of hectoring, as if the writer/speaker is trying to control the reader/listener, closing his options and depriving him of