First Person Plural, Second Person Singular

Checking out debut novelist Ed Park’s office-culture novel Personal Days, I was surprised to find it written in First Person Plural — the same odd “we” voice that debut novelist Joshua Ferris chose for last year’s hit office-culture novel Then We Came To The End. Does the “collective voice” have some special relevance for our age? Somehow it does seem to fit the cubicle mentality in Park’s hands:

Whenever we sniff a layoff coming, which is always, each one of us thinks, It can’t be me because ___.

When Lars started with us — six months ago, nine months, a year ago? — he was full of pep, but we managed to squeeze it out of him.

Or in Ferris’s:

We were fractious and overpaid. Our mornings lacked promise.

And yet, reading both novels, I find myself skidding against the device. I like it when writers experiment with narrative stance, and I want to like both of these books. But I work in an office myself, and I don’t find that a plural voice reflects my own generally more anguished experience of cubicle culture. The collective “we” is both limiting and liberating. Park and Ferris tend to rely on the comedy of recognition, of shared experience, and that’s where this stance works. But Fyodor Dostoevsky could have never written in First Person Plural.

Yet the approach does add to the appeal of both novels, and I think it’s best appreciated not as a cultural signifier but as an innovative device. The great television comedy The Office also seems to emanate from a strange, carefully constructed collective narrative stance. The characters in “The Office” seem to be filming some type of cosmic eternal reality show, which is why they make faces at the camera and give furtive interviews between scenes. Yet it’s completely unclear who is watching this reality show and whether or not this reality show exists at all. Like Park’s book and Ferris’s book, “The Office” simply employs an off-center narrative stance as a great hiding place from which to stalk its prey.

The modern craze for First Person Plural reminds me of the craze for Second Person Singular during the “Breakfast Club” literary scene of the 1980’s. Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights Big City was ground zero of the “you” craze with this opening line:

You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.

Many followed, including Lorrie Moore, Don Delillo, Ann Beattie, Nicholson Baker, Julian Barnes and Frederick Barthelme. Hell, I tried it myself, with utterly unsatisfying results. Twenty years later, whatever happened to Second Person Singular? Writers from Chuck Palahniuk to Junot Diaz still use it, but now nobody calls it seminal. I guess the fashion went out with Spy Magazine.

The funny thing about both First Person Plural and Second Person Singular is that, while they are relatively rare occurences in fiction, they are both used widely in song lyrics. First Person Plural:

“We Shall Overcome”
“Let’s Dance”
“This is D-Block”

Second Person Singular:

“Don’t You Forget About Me”
“I Got You Babe”
“Do The Hustle”

What narrative stance will be the next big thing in postmodern fiction? I guess we’ll have to wait and find out, won’t we?

74 Responses

  1. Actually the concept for “The
    Actually the concept for “The Office” is that the characters are being filmed for a documentary to be aired on television. Although what you said would be better from an artistic viewpoint.

  2. But, TH, they never explain
    But, TH, they never explain or refer to this documentary. It has no title, no filmmakers ever intervene in the plot, no show is ever aired, and nothing relating to this documentary is ever mentioned in the show. Therefore, I have to conclude that it’s a narrative ruse without any possible real-world corollary.

  3. Fair enough. In the original
    Fair enough. In the original “Office” they do refer to the documentary, I was just assuming they did in the American version as well. It is a narrative device to get that cinima verte feel, as you say.

  4. The first time I read Bright
    The first time I read Bright Lights, Big City, I think in high school, it took me a while to get going. But I also remember the next book I picked up was just as disorienting. I couldn’t figure out where “I” was. The Palahniuk novels all run together, and the second person narrative wasn’t even that noticeable. Maybe we need a new novel about the south in second person plural. A Faulkneresque nouveau roman that starts: Ya’ll done come up from the field…

  5. You know, you read these
    You know, you read these blogs where people say ‘I don’t like this and I don’t like that’ and you think: “why should anyone care what this guy thinks? this doesn’t have anything to do with me or what I think?” Do you ever have that feeling when you’re reading fiction, too? You know, it’s always all about he and him or I and me. Don’t you ever get tired of it and wish the author would somehow try to connect with you

  6. Whatever works and tells the
    Whatever works and tells the tale well is the answer to: What narrative stance will be the next big thing in postmodern fiction?

    My nominations would be Everlast’s Whitey Ford Sings the Blues and Ready to Die by the Notorious BIG. Both are concept albums with the first ending in transcendence and the second ending with a gunshot, if I remember correctly. Both showed rather than told.

    The narration in DeLillo’s Falling Man was very conventional but it worked.

  7. I am too inexperienced a
    I am too inexperienced a writer to be conscious of what voice I am using ( mostly, I write in the third person, unlimited fashion. ) However, I am conscious of my themes, and of the symbolic supporters of those themes.

    ‘First Person Plural, Second Person Singular’ certainly sounds trickier, to me.

  8. Rubiao, you cracked me up
    Rubiao, you cracked me up with your second person plural, “Ya’ll done come up from the field… ”
    That’s a good one!

  9. i’ve wondered about the same
    i’ve wondered about the same thing jamelah is wondering about and came to the conclusion that it’s an elaborate and linguistically dexterous way to sneak from first to second person singular… nifty, no? clever. rocking conjugations…

  10. You know, I’d love to hear a
    You know, I’d love to hear a second person singular song with sad whistling.

    Also, Jamelah, “I Got You Babe” is second person because there is … a second person. And that second person is Sonny Bono.

  11. Not to be a totally
    Not to be a totally irritating pedant, but the presence of the word “you” does not a second person POV construction make. I got you is first person. Talking to another person. If it were “I got him” or “I got her” you wouldn’t say it was third person, would you?

    The second person point of view is when “you” takes the place of “I” and I think you’d actually be hard pressed to find a pop song that was truly in the second person. “Do the Hustle” is not second person… more like first person imperative. “I want to encourage everyone/ To coordinate your steps and clap” is first person all the way.

    And “Dont You Forget About Me” isn’t really second person either. Like “Do the Hustle” it’s imperative. A command. From me to you, saying “hey you… don’t forget about me, the first person in this construction. Thanks. You’re swell.” So there.

  12. A great example of a pop song
    A great example of a pop song in second person singular is Weezer’s “Only in Dreams”: “you can’t resist her/ she’s in your bones…you can’t avoid her/ she’s in the air.”

    And in fact the chorus of that song (“only in dreams/ we see what it means/ reach out our hand/ hold on to hers”) switches into first person plural.

    If only Rivers Cuomo were still writing songs today like he was in the mid ’90s…

  13. Very interesting, Jamelah. I
    Very interesting, Jamelah. I will agree that I could have picked better examples of second person songs, because “I Got You Babe” is both first person (as Jamelah says) and second person (as Caryn says). However, I do think “Do The Hustle” is absolutely an example of second person. Whether it’s imperative or not makes no difference — there is no “I” in this song, but there is an implied “You”. I agree that it’s second person imperative, but I sure don’t see how it’s first person imperative.

    Another interesting thing that occurred to me after I picked these songs (and, by the way, I spent all of about 30 seconds thinking up that list of songs, so JUST KILL ME about the fact that the list isn’t perfect) is that a surprising number of Bob Dylan songs are second person. Witness:

    Like A Rolling Stone (“how does it feel to be on your own?”)

    Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right (“ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe”)

    Blowin’ in the Wind (“the answer, my friend …”)

    The Times They Are A-Changing (this is a sort of second person plural, “come gather round, people”)

    It Ain’t Me Babe (“you say you’re looking for someone …”)

    Rainy Day Women #12 + 35 (“they’ll stone you when you’re walking down the street”)

    What does this mean? I don’t know. But it sure is interesting.

  14. You think you’re all crazy.
    You think you’re all crazy. You are not sure the presence of “you” really makes it second person either, but more importantly, if you did think that, you would probably just be fooling yourself. Or yourself if you are really you. Furthermore, you might find yourself living in a shotgun shack (or in your van down by your river). Because really, in the end there is no first or second person, as it’s not you, it’s me. Ok maybe it is you… and that brings you to a poem that this all reminded you of by Tony Hoagland that you think is really good:


    Maxine, back from a weekend with her boyfriend,
    smiles like a big cat and says
    that she’s a conjugated verb.
    She’s been doing the direct object
    with a second person pronoun named Phil,
    and when she walks into the room,
    everybody turns:

    some kind of light is coming from her head.
    Even the geraniums look curious,
    and the bees, if they were here, would buzz
    suspiciously around her hair, looking
    for the door in her corona.
    We’re all attracted to the perfume
    of fermenting joy,

    we’ve all tried to start a fire,
    and one day maybe it will blaze up on its own.
    In the meantime, she is the one today among us
    most able to bear the idea of her own beauty,
    and when we see it, what we do is natural:
    we take our burned hands
    out of our pockets,
    and clap.

    You may now return to your regularly scheduled progamming of you.

  15. hmm.. how about Dylan’s song
    hmm.. how about Dylan’s song ‘Sara’? Is this an example of multiple point of views??

    I can still see them playin’ with their pails in the sand,
    They run to the water their buckets to fill.
    I can still see the shells fallin’ out of their hands
    As they follow each other back up the hill.

    Sara, Sara,
    Sweet virgin angel, sweet love of my life,
    Sara, Sara,
    Radiant jewel, mystical wife.

    Sleepin’ in the woods by a fire in the night,
    Drinkin’ white rum in a Portugal bar,
    Them playin’ leapfrog and hearin’ about Snow White,
    You in the marketplace in Savanna-la-Mar.

    Sara, Sara,
    It’s all so clear, I could never forget,
    Sara, Sara,
    Lovin’ you is the one thing I’ll never regret.

    I can still hear the sounds of those Methodist bells,
    I’d taken the cure and had just gotten through,
    Stayin’ up for days in the Chelsea Hotel,
    Writin’ “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” for you.

    Sara, Sara,
    Wherever we travel we’re never apart.
    Sara, oh Sara,
    Beautiful lady, so dear to my heart.

  16. Earle is correct. Caryn, if
    Earle is correct. Caryn, if I’m not mistaken, was joking. No way is “I Got You Babe” second person.

  17. Dylan is always talking to
    Dylan is always talking to another person in his songs, so that’s where the you comes in. The classic is Positively Fourth Street:

    You’ve got a lot of nerve
    To say you are my friend…

  18. But as Jamelah Points out,
    But as Jamelah Points out, it’s not second person point of view. The point of view is Dylan himself – talking to/criticizing/describing/putting down the second person

  19. A good one is “Mr Jones” – if
    A good one is “Mr Jones” – if there were no Mr. Jones and Dylan was describing himself, then

    “You walk into the room
    with your pencil and then you frown”

    Would be total, trippy, second person point of view, ie Dylan is Mr. Jones. But he’s not. Or is he?

  20. I agree with Jamelah that
    I agree with Jamelah that “you” needs to take the place of “I” and be the subject and narrator of the song/story in order to be really second person. Most of those Dylan songs work, as does “Ballad of a Thin Man” (“you walk into the room,” “something is happening here and you don’t know what it is”), but I don’t think stuff like “Do the Hustle” and “Don’t Think Twice, it’s Alright” work, since the narrator and the “you” are distinct; the songs seem to depend on the distinction.

  21. I stand by my original
    I stand by my original statement, though with the modification that “I Got You Babe” is both first person and second person (who says the two can’t co-exist?). Look:

    “So let them say your hair’s too long …”

    The song is clearly addressing a second person. What’s the controversy? It’s both first person and second person. There’s no reason a narrative can’t be both at the same time.





    There IS an I in “Do the Hustle” and I even quoted it! Dude! “I” the singer of the song, am telling “you” the listener, to Do the Hustle!

    Imperatives are commands, generally given by one person to another person. “He said ‘Do the Hustle'” is a third person construction. “I said ‘Do the Hustle'” is a first person construction. If it’s something like “You stand there for a minute, not sure of what to do, before you say to yourself, ‘Do the Hustle'” then it’s a second person construction, but only because “you” takes the place of “I” (or “he”).

    And really? “It Ain’t ME Babe”? That is so first person.

    Thanks so much for getting all those Dylan songs in my head though.

  23. Oh, for the love of beer.
    Oh, for the love of beer. Addressing a second person doesn’t make a second person construction. Unless the second person is addressing himself. If “I Got You Babe” was not a duet and Sonny Bono sang it to himself, then yes, you’d have a point. Otherwise, no. No.

  24. Don’t make me show my
    Don’t make me show my ass!

    Like other have pointed out, using the word “you” doesn’t make something second person. And no, I don’t see how something could be first and second person at the same time, although I’m not ruling out the possibility. But the Sonny & Cher song is two people talking to each other. I assume Cher doesn’t care if “they” say Sonny’s hair is too long. That’s not the same as when Bob Seger sings, “You walk into a restaurant” (and some rednecks chide you for having long hair). That really is second person.

    Don’t you see? For God’s sake, don’t you see?

  25. First Person: If there is an
    First Person: If there is an ‘I’ or a ‘we’ telling a story, then a narroter is present, and this is first person point of view.

    Second Person: If someone is directly addressed as ‘you’ ( and not in dialogue), then second person POV is being used.

    Third Person: if the author uses he, she, it or they, and tells what is in a character’s head and heart, then the narrative is Third Person POV.

    It is only when an author shifts from (I,we) to
    (she,he,it,they) is the author changing POV

  26. I think we’ll all have to
    I think we’ll all have to agree to disagree here. I say that addressing a second person DOES make a second person construction. In fact I’ll go so far as to say that this statement is obvious. “Addressing a second person” and “having a second person construction” are two ways of saying the same thing.

  27. The disagreement here centers
    The disagreement here centers on the distinction between “second person perspective” and “second person contruction.” I think perspective is the single most important thing. In the cases of “You walk into the room” (Dylan) and “You walk into a restaurant” (Seger), the song is literally seen through the eyes of the “you.” I think the idea of the second person story/song loses its meaning if all that is necessary is that a “you” be addressed. It would be pretty easy to come up with thousands of songs that address a “you,” but it is more difficult and interesting to try to come up with songs in which the “you” is the actor, subject, narrator, storyteller, etc.

  28. Here’s some fresh, real,
    Here’s some fresh, real, second person point of view songs:
    1. Dylan (natch) Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues:
    “When you’re lost in the rain in Jaurez and it’s Easter time, too.”

    True, classic, second person point of view – Dylan is assuming the “you”. “You” are the focus of the story. He is not talking to “you”, he is “you”. He is relating the story in an indirect way, using “you” as the point of indirection.

    2. Chuck Berry, Down the Road Apiece. “Their’s a place you really get your kicks, it’s open every night about twelve to six.” Again, the you is in fact, I.

    3. False second person point of view, the Kink’s You Really Got Me. “Girl, you really got me, you got me so I don’t know what I’m doin'” In this example, Ray Davies is not putting his own personna into the you, but he is adressing another person, that person being Girl. It is the same as “Girl, you really got me, you got me so I don’t what I’m doin’,” Ray Davies said. It’s quoted speach, sort of.

    4. Do the Hustle is an imperitive. So is Dance to the Music. Imagine a marine drill sargeant saying
    “Allright you maggots, Do the Hustle!” It’s an order not a point of view.

    5. When reporting something that goes on in an office, it is imperitive to use third person singular, and only identify the character by their first or last initial, such as “D. awoke from his web-induced reverie to realize that he had been transformed into a giant cockroach”

    I rest my case.

  29. As Chicago once offered: Does
    As Chicago once offered: Does anybody really care?

    And as they further observed: Two is just as bad as one, it’s the loneliest number since the number one (oh!).

  30. if a story is told in
    if a story is told in indicative sentences having the second person as a subject, then it’s a second person construction.

    in (english) imperative sentences, the subject of the sentence can only be “you” (except when first-person plural is specified, as in “let’s…” ); that doesn’t make them a second person construction, though – they are used that way in stories told in first, second, or third person constructions. the “you” is no indication here.

    of course having “you” as a subject means adressing a second person. having a second person construction always means adressing someone. that’s the nature of, well.. a second person construction. adressing someone. saying “you”. you as the subject are doing something.

    but adressing a second person does not always mean having a second person construction. if it’s “you get the babe” (indicative sentence, you = subject), then it is. if it’s “i got you, babe” (i = subject, you =object), or “go get it, babe!” (imperative sentence), then it’s not.

    i’m with jamelah and jennifer on this one.

  31. I’m not sure what you’d call
    I’m not sure what you’d call it, since it is kind of first person plural + third person plural, but Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” is the only song I know to be told from the point of view of everybody:

    Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
    Everybody knows that the captain lied
    Everybody got this broken feeling
    Like their father or their dog just died

    Everybody talking to their pockets
    Everybody wants a box of chocolates
    And a long stem rose
    Everybody knows

    Pretty remarkable.

  32. as for “everybody knows” –
    as for “everybody knows” – strangely enough, this is a third person singular construction, as clearly indicated by the “s” added to the verbs in the simple present form… ha! everybody is singular!

    english is a weird language.

  33. panta rhei, you’re with me,
    panta rhei, you’re with me, too.

    Baroque, interesting observation about the “everybody” POV.

  34. “Does anybody really
    “Does anybody really care?”

    Yes. Writers care. Why? Writers care because many of them are meticulous perfectionists when it comes to the craft of writing; hence, the common accusations of pedantry!

  35. Sure, people, just gang up on
    Sure, people, just gang up on me.

    That sentence has a second person construction, by the way.

  36. “Your boyfriend he,
    went down

    “Your boyfriend he,
    went down on one knee.
    well could it be, he’s
    only got one knee?”

    I think it should be noted for this discussion that artists (Dylan being a great example) are not bound at all by conventional rules of grammar. All that matters for a great song is the sound of the words set to music. Messing around with perspective is something which I would guess Dylan does just for fun to please himself sometimes. Although certainly songs like “the times they are a-changin” have direct messages.

  37. Oh, don’t post that response,
    Oh, don’t post that response, Levi. It sounds patronising, and I don’t want to do that! I take it, Caryn, is your bride to be!?

  38. Upon further investigation, I
    Upon further investigation, I grudgingly concede that Levi might not be wrong. I think it goes back to Baroque’s statement re: the distinction between “second person perspective” and “second person contruction.” defines 2nd person:

    1. The grammatical category of forms that designate a speaker or writer referring to the person addressed. Examples of forms in the second person include English pronouns such as you and verb forms such as Spanish hablas “you speak.” 2. A discourse or literary style in which the narrator recounts his or her own experiences or impressions using such forms: a story told in the second person.

    Having said that, I still maintain that the most accepted understanding of “second person narrative” involves the use of “you” specifically as the character, almost as if “you” is the narrator. Once you begin expanding that meaning, it’s like a slippery slope in which almost anything can be called 2nd person. “Call me Ishmael” actually means, “You, call me Ishmael” because the “you” is implied, but you can’t say Moby Dick is written in the second person just because of that “you.” Moby Dick is, in fact, written in first person point of view. I guess you can say that that particular sentence is construction in the second person, but 99% of the time, when people say something is written in 2nd person, they mean the whole book, not a couple of sentences in the book.

  39. You be illin. Jamelah is
    You be illin. Jamelah is right. Her initial comment inspired to me make my love of English comment, (Yingwen, wo ai ni).

    Few songs are really second person singular. One I can think of is you be illin, the Run DMC classic. Not all the verses, but the second one, thus:

    (To)day you won a ticket to see Doctor J
    Front row seat (in free!) no pay
    Radio in hand, snacks by feet
    Game’s about to start, you kickin’ popcorn to the beat
    You finally wake up, Doc’s gone to town
    Round his back, through the hoop, then you scream “Touchdown!”
    You be illin’

  40. Dissect this boys n
    Dissect this boys n girls!!


    I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.
    See how they run like pigs from a gun, see how they fly.
    I’m crying.

    Sitting on a cornflake, waiting for the van to come.
    Corporation tee-shirt, stupid bloody tuesday.
    Man, you been a naughty boy, you let your face grow long.
    I am the eggman, they are the eggmen.
    I am the walrus, goo goo g’joob.

    Mister city policeman sitting
    Pretty little policemen in a row.
    See how they fly like lucy in the sky, see how they run.
    I’m crying, i’m crying.
    I’m crying, i’m crying.

    Yellow matter custard, dripping from a dead dog’s eye.
    Crabalocker fishwife, pornographic priestess,
    Boy, you been a naughty girl you let your knickers down.
    I am the eggman, they are the eggmen.
    I am the walrus, goo goo g’joob.

    Sitting in an english garden waiting for the sun.
    If the sun don’t come, you get a tan
    From standing in the english rain.
    I am the eggman, they are the eggmen.
    I am the walrus, goo goo g’joob g’goo goo g’joob.

    Expert textpert choking smokers,
    Don’t you thing the joker laughs at you?
    See how they smile like pigs in a sty,
    See how they snied.
    I’m crying.

    Semolina pilchard, climbing up the eiffel tower.
    Elementary penguin singing hari krishna.
    Man, you should have seen them kicking edgar allan poe.
    I am the eggman, they are the eggmen.
    I am the walrus, goo goo g’joob g’goo goo g’joob.
    Goo goo g’joob g’goo goo g’joob g’goo.

  41. Levi is correct regarding
    Levi is correct regarding walrus point of view.
    And here’s an example of second walrus:

    Your day breaks, your mind aches
    There will be times when all
    the things she says will fill
    your head
    You won’t forget her

  42. I am he: First person,
    I am he: First person, singular
    You are he: Second person, singular?
    We are all together: First person, plural
    See how they run like pigs from a gun, see how they fly: Third person, imperative
    I’m crying: First person, Imperative

    I am the eggman: First eggman, singular
    They are the eggmen: Third eggmen, plural

  43. I can’t believe no one so far
    I can’t believe no one so far (unless I missed it) has mentioned the most obvious use of first-person plural in classic fiction: Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” a staple of intro-to-lit classes for at least the 33 years I’ve taught on the college level.

  44. Richard, I never heard of
    Richard, I never heard of that Faulkner book. I’ll check it out.

    And, folks, guess what? According to Wikipedia:

    “Second-person narration is a narrative technique in which the protagonist or another main character is referred to by employment of second-person personal pronouns and other kinds of addressing forms, for example the English second-person pronoun “you”.”

    It doesn’t say anything about subjects or objects. So I think my looser definition of “second person narrative” can hold its own against the tighter definition of a narrative where the second person is the subject.

    And no, I didn’t write that Wikipedia page!

  45. Jennifer, thank you for the
    Jennifer, thank you for the lyrics to I Am the Walrus to this extensive forum. All those narrative forms in one great surreal composition. Fun AND educational!

  46. Does “I Am the Walrus” change
    Does “I Am the Walrus” change perspective each time a different pronoun is introduced into the lyrics or is it told from the perspective of a speaker (or in this case, singer) named “I”? I would argue that it doesn’t.

    Levi, the reason why I don’t agree with your interpretation of that Wikipedia passage is because it doesn’t matter if it’s about subjects or objects. If it were about subjects or objects, you would be right, because you define the usage of a pronoun as a shift in narrative perspective. But if that were indeed true, every narrative on earth would be confusing as hell because the perspective that the story is told from would shift constantly with the introduction of each pronoun. That is impossible, and it’s a good thing it is, because I think in general, people like understanding what they read. A perspective is simply a perspective. We like to know who is telling us the story. Writers play with perspectives all the time and that’s all very well and good, but it most usually doesn’t happen on a sentence-by-sentence (or clause-by-clause) basis.

    Look at it in a broader context, because breaking it down to the individual words is too small a picture. An entire narrative’s perspective does not hinge on pronouns. You are defining a narrative in terms of solitary clauses, which doesn’t work. Outside of the world of six-word stories, is a narrative only one sentence or phrase?

    Maybe what I mean will make more sense if we look at a simple narrative told from a single point of view, and pretend that the narrator is a physical being who is telling a story. This narrator can narrate in first, second, or third person. That narrator will most likely use first, second, and third person pronouns in the narrative to describe what’s happening and who other people/characters in the narrative are, but the narrator’s perspective stays the same. Let’s say the narrator (who is a physical person telling a story aloud) tells the story from the first person, because that is the most common way for a speaking narrator to tell a story… like, pretend the narrator is in a bar talking to his friends about his day. Like so:

    “I was walking down the street.
    [First person]

    I stopped at the store because I saw my cousin, Sue.
    [Still first person. Does the person of the narrator physically change into the physical person Sue? No.]

    She just moved back to town after her divorce.
    [Still first person. The narrator is filling in a detail about Sue but still does not physically transform into another human being because he does so.]

    Then I met you, Ted.
    [At this point, does the narrator become you, Ted? No, he is still the first person narrator speaking to another person.]

    We walked to the bar and met the rest of you.
    [Even with the use of the first person plural pronoun, the physical speaking first person narrator does not simultaneously embody both himself and the person of Ted. Nor with the introduction of “the rest of you” does he become everyone else in the group. He is still just one person, explaining an action. He could have just as easily said “Then Ted and I walked to the bar and met the rest of you” but he didn’t, because that would be weird after he first said “Then I met you, Ted.”]

    Now I am telling you the most boring story in the history of stories.
    [Yeah, he’s still the single first person narrator, not everyone in his group.]

    The end.”

    That example is just of a first person narration, but the rule still applies to all of the different perspectives.

  47. Jamelah,

    Yes, you are right.

    Yes, you are right. When speaking of an entire novel, there is usually one type of narrative structure that defines the perspective of the novel. But this does not mean that a writer does not or can not change perspectives, and frequently. Does the title, “I am the Walrus” define the perspective of the whole song? No.
    Because this particular song is comprised of lyrics set to music, rather than say, folk music that tells a story or makes a statement; this song may be dissected, line by line. Wouldn’t you say that:

    “Semolina pilchard, climbing up the eiffel tower.
    Elementary penguin singing hari krishna”

    is nonsensical?

    There is no clear direction, and therefore, can not be compared to novel or story writing.

  48. There may be a state,
    There may be a state, province, or country somewhere in which airplanes are regulated by the Department of Motor Vehicles. Certainly, airplanes have motors, and they are vehicles. But we know the DMV regulates cars, trucks, and other vehicles that roll on the ground. The FAA regulates airplanes. If I mention the DMV, no reasonable person would immediately think, “Airplanes!”

    It’s the same with second person point of view. We all know what it means in contrast to first person and third person. What Jamelah said.

  49. I love this discussion. And
    I love this discussion. And I believe that Jamelah, Jennifer, Bill and Panta Rhei’s position is entirely reasonable and internally consistent. This is a good strict definition of “second person narrative”, though it’s not very flexible because (if I understand Jamelah correctly) according to this definition a text can only be first person OR second person but cannot be both.

    I am sticking by a broader and looser definition which says that a text can be both first person and second person (again, “I Got You, Babe”), and doesn’t try to place strict limits on what a second person narrative is or isn’t except that, obviously, a second person must be addressed in the narrative. It happens that Wikipedia seems to agree with me, and so do other online sources I’ve found. Can any of you have advocate the tighter, stricter definition find an authoritative source to back your position up? I haven’t seen one yet.

    One reason I feel strongly about my less strict definition is that I’ve always followed the view of Ludwig Wittgenstein that language is a basically pragmatic and ad-hoc construction that is not actually bound by rules, and did not originate from rules. According to this, I believe most advanced grammatical discussions and definitions are essentially just stabs in the dark. When it comes to difficult grammar questions, there is no “supreme court” to make final judgements. Jamelah, you say that a narrative is only second person if the second person is the subject. I say, who says? I say “second person narrative” is a philosophical phantasm to begin with. Furthermore, a “text” is also a philosophical phantasm. The only real definitions are the ones that are useful in any given circumstance. I think I have not only Wikipedia but also Wittgenstein on my side here.

  50. And then there was the
    And then there was the recently departed Norman Mailers’ ‘non-fiction novels’ where he referred to himselve in the second person singular, most noteably as ‘the Prize Winner.’
    These posts were alot of fun amongst friends weren’t they.

  51. levi, wikipedia IS backing up
    levi, wikipedia IS backing up our position — it says “second-person narration is a narrative technique in which the protagonist or another main character is referred to by employment of second-person personal pronouns”. the protagonist is the one whose POV leads through the story. of course s/he can then be subject or object within that story, depending on what’s happening in the tale. the subject/object thing (from a grammatical pointo view)of course just matters when it comes to single sentences that need to be defined POV-wise. “i got you babe” (which is first person singular as a single sentence) could only be part of a second person construction within a text that said something like “you went down that dark and narrow lane when suddenly you got grabbed by someone from out of the dark. “i got you, babe!”, he said in a murky voice as he held you tight from behind.”

    having a second person construction obviously always means adressing someone. but adressing a second person does not always mean having a second person construction!

    (and language, for the most part, is a mental abstraction and philosophical phantasm anyway)

  52. First off, I do NOT say that
    First off, I do NOT say that a narrative is second person only if the second person is the subject. I say that a narrative is second person only if it is narrated from the second person’s perspective. It’s about worldview, not subjects. A sentence in a second person narration may have all kinds of sentences that have subjects that are not the second person. The subject may be the neighbor, the orange on the table, or the dustbunnies under the bed. That does not change the worldview of the narration. Not one bit. You misinterpret me, sir. A narrator doesn’t even have to appear in a story. It could be an omniscient being telling a tale it has nothing to do with personally. (That’s called third person omniscient point of view. I learned about it a really long time ago and I’m sure you did too.)

    As for the rest, a language is a generally agreed upon consensus. It doesn’t have a supreme court. It works because it has an internal logic that makes it make sense. This is true in any language, though the internal logic of a language is not universally the same (the internal logic of Arabic and the internal logic of English are not the same, for instance), but they are consistent to themselves.

    As for this narrative point of view stuff, it’s really easy and I learned it in fourth grade. It makes sense, according to the way English works. English as a language is nutty as hell and I love it to pieces. It evolves all the time, in terms of lexicon, in terms of grammar. We don’t write English now the way people wrote English in the 18th century. If we haven’t annihilated ourselves by then, people in the 25th century won’t write English the way we do now. It will probably all be hrbl txt spk and from wherever I go after I die, I will probably be sad about that. But whatever.

    When it comes to language, there is no “The Man” to stand up against. Fight the power! Of internal logic! Woot! It just doesn’t work that way. And honestly, at this point, I almost hate to say it, but I am absolutely unable to believe that you would want a looser definition of a second person narrative. It makes everything so much more complex, in an entirely needless way. And language, as with many other things, works best when it is simple. When it is clear. That whole Occam’s Razor thing. The fact that we are even able to have this discussion at all is because we are working from a set of agreed-upon rules that makes English what it is. If I suddenly changed the game because I felt like it, and screw the meaning of what the language is, you wouldn’t be able to understand me. And since I believe the purpose of language is to communicate in an understandable way, I’m not going to do that. I’m also not going to define terms to suit my understanding of things. It doesn’t work that way. With anything. You can’t run a stop sign and smash into a side of a car (that actually had the right-of-way) and then say “Well officer, I have a looser definition of what stopping means. By my definition, I just sort of slow down a little bit before plowing through the intersection. Your definition may be fine for you, but don’t cramp my style with your stodgy old laws, pig.”

    Any narrative can exist in any point of view at any time. But just as the language it is written in, it will follow its own internal logic. Perhaps, like Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, it will shift narrators every chapter. Perhaps a short story will shift narrators by paragraph. But the fact of the matter is that the point of view of any piece of writing (song, poem, story, novel) is determined by the perspective of the narrator, which is a choice made by the author when the author writes. The narrator may be all sorts of things: living, dead, drunk, stoned, reliable, unreliable, a totally honest and believable saint, a complete and utter liar, whatever. But the narrator narrates from his/her perspective. Whether his perspective is first person, second person, or third person is a choice made by the author.

    So yeah, a narrative’s point of view is defined by who narrates, not by who else is in the story. The question is, do you see the story through a different set of eyes every time a different pronoun is introduced? EVERY TIME? Absolutely not. If that were true, almost every narrative on earth would be impossible to follow, because the perspective the story is told from would change each and every time a new pronoun was used. By your definition of “narrative perspective” a sentence that contained “I” “you” “he” “she” “we” and “they” (in that order) would start being told from my perspective (and in this case, “perspective” means “view from which I see the world”). It would, a couple of words later, change worldviews to be told from your perspective. It would again change a couple of words later to be told from his perspective. Then again, to her perspective. Then again to our collective perspective. And yet again to their perspective. All in one sentence! How would you follow that? You couldn’t, because if the entire narrative perspective (meaning worldview from which the story is told) changed with each passing pronoun, you would be so confused by the time you got through maybe three sentences that you’d have to throw the book against the wall. It would be exhausting trying to follow something like that.

    Fortunately, that doesn’t happen. Ever. Ever ever ever. Ever. When perspective changes in a story, it is logical (to the world of the story — that doesn’t mean it can’t be confusing or seem illogical to the reader). It is not something that happens with each passing word. That is illogical. Narration is not two words long. Is “I got” a full narration of someone’s perspective of a relationship and “you babe” a full narration of someone else’s perspective of a relationship? No. One of those isn’t even a complete sentence.

    Yes, a text can change perspective, a story can be both first person and second person and hey it can even be third person too if it wants. The closest example I can think of where a book contains multiple perspectives that exist together, really really together, is Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions, and even that confusing mass works according to a very strict internal logic, defined in this case by the geometrical definition of a circle. But even though the stories are told together, they are told one person at a time.

    So anyway, I realize at this point that nothing I say even actually matters because I’m just an uptight grammar nerd with a narrow, strict view of the way things work, man, but I just have to ask you

  53. Jennifer Cuddy wrote.
    “I am

    Jennifer Cuddy wrote.
    “I am the first peron singular
    I am the eggman. First person singular”
    Two points about that
    What came first person singular the chicken man or the eggman.
    Second point.
    Is Johnnie still in the basement.

  54. First, to Panta Rhei, you say
    First, to Panta Rhei, you say about the Wikipedia page:

    “it says ‘second-person narration is a narrative technique in which the protagonist or another main character is referred to by employment of second-person personal pronouns’. the protagonist is the one whose POV leads through the story.”

    But, it says “protagonist or another main character”. So it’s not necessarily the one whose POV leads through the story.

    But finally, I am going to let Jamelah’s closing statement stand, because it’s as good a closing statement as anybody needs. Even though I still think my definition works too.

  55. Two things. Then I’ll hold my
    Two things. Then I’ll hold my tongue.

    1. The only reason Wikipedia said, “protagonist or another main character” is to avoid leaving out the rare story in which the narrator tells a story about someone else. For example, if The Great Gatsby were written in second person, it might say, “You graduate from an Ivy League school and serve in the Army. When the war is over, you muster out and return to your midwestern home. Feeling restless, you move to New York and rent a small house on Long Island. You meet Gatsby for the first time and introduce yourslef, “Nick Carraway. Nice to meet you, Mr. Gatsby.”

    See, Gatsby can be considered the protagonist. The narrator is Nick Carroway.

    2. If I was thirty years younger and single, I would send Jamelah a dozen roses. I’m just saying.

  56. I’ll concur with Bill on this
    I’ll concur with Bill on this one, except to say they would be ‘red red roses’

  57. Late illumination. Is Bob
    Late illumination. Is Bob Dylan the ‘egg man’like in the film.
    Or, is Bob Dylan the egg, man.

  58. “the protagonist is the one
    “the protagonist is the one whose POV leads through the story”

    I’d agree with that, unless the novel is written in Third Person, Universal.

    p.s. Will this thread never end?

  59. Okay, one more
    Okay, one more thing.

    Merriam-Webster defines protagonist as “a: the principal character in a literary work (as a drama or story) b: a leading actor, character, or participant in a literary work or real event.”

    Besides my Gatsby example, there is also Sherlock Holmes, with Dr. Watson narrating. Many experts say that a story can have more than one protagonist. That is still consistant with my explanation of why Wikipedia says “protagonist or another main character,” because they are simply covering all bases, and it is also consistant with what Jamelah is saying.

  60. “I am the Walrus” is first
    “I am the Walrus” is first person-Jamelah.
    No, its first Walrus- Levi.
    “I’m Spartacus.”

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!