Writing in the second person narrative means speaking to the audience from the perspective of a second person (other than yourself). What this means is that the writing will have a conversational feel to it, like you are interacting or speaking directly to another person.
Because of the conversational feel of second person narrative, this style is used less often in novels and short stories. Conversely, it is one of the most commonly used perspectives in songs and poetry. However, it is in business and technical writing that the second person narrative really shines.
Give Me a You!
When writing in the second person narrative, it is all about the pronoun “you.”
First, let’s cover the word “you” from a grammatical perspective. “You” is a really flexible pronoun. Generally, pronouns are either subjective (i.e., subject of the sentence), or objective (i.e., the object of the sentence). My blog post and these lessons on pronoun cases go into this in more detail, but here are a couple of examples.
- You light up my life.
Here, “you” is clearly the subject of the sentence where “life” is the object.
- I can’t live without you.
However in this sentence, “I” is the subject and “you” is the object. Sounds like “you” is also the object of someone’s affections. (Let’s hear it for love!) Also, unlike most pronouns, “you” can be either singular or plural.
- You take the trash out.
I love all of you.
As you can see, “you” is singular in the first sentence and plural in the second. That is one flexible pronoun!
Isn’t It Romantic?
One great thing about the second person narrative is that it draws the reader or listener into the dialogue. It’s inclusive. It makes the reader a part of the action. Second person narrative does a better job of this than first person, and a much better job than third person. Let’s look at poetry for example.
- You are my heart and my life.
Gives you goosebumps, doesn’t it? You are the object of this affection so you feel like you’re part of that relationship.
Now let’s change the sentence to a first person narrative.
- I see you as my heart and my life.
See? Not as many goosebumps. It’s a little more formal because it is coming from another person’s perspective. It is still romantic but the sentiment loses some power.
How about third person perspective?
- He saw her as his heart and his life.
Yeah, there are no goosies at all in this one. And if they are, it is from a distance. The action is happening to someone else, and while the reader may feel empathy and warm fuzzies for whoever the “her” in the sentence is, they still feel like they are on the outside looking in. Nothing is directed toward the reader so it’s not as personal.
If you think about it, the same could be said for music. How many love songs have been written to “you”? I don’t know for certain, but I’d guess the number is in the millions! And that is because—by writing the song about “you”—it puts the listener in the position of the one being loved, so they tend to feel it more. They can relate to the song as if a person (probably someone they know) is singing the song to them.
Examples of Second Person Narrative
Business correspondence is generally a combination of first person and second person narrative. The use of this combination allows for a more personal touch when communicating. Take a look at this example email and notice the many first and second person pronouns used (which means that it is written in a first and second person narrative).
I have spoken to the other supervisors and I think we need to address your ideas about the Christmas party.
1) We feel that a dunking booth would be inappropriate for the grand ballroom we have rented.
2) There is no such thing as a Santa Clown. It gave us the willies just thinking about it.
3) We feel that your suggestion of an entire ceiling made of mistletoe would discourage our female employees from attending.
4) Even though I anticipated the answer, I still checked and the grand ballroom most definitely does not allow Christmas bonfires indoors.
I thank you for your ideas – although human resources is having trouble finding any record of your employment with us.
With great concern,
Jim Myers, Supervisor
Technical documentation is definitely better off using second person narrative and the pronoun “you,” since it is largely about conveying instructions.
- You should always remove the nut from the bolt before removing the washer. It will enhance the life of your bolt.
Now let’s try it in third person:
- They suggested always removing the nut from the bolt before removing the washer. They felt it would enhance the life of his or her bolt.
Once again, the second person narrative clearly wins out because it makes the reader feel like the author is talking directly to them.
Of course, presentations and speeches would be flat-out silly if they were done in third person instead of first and second person narrative.
First and Second Person:
- “I would like to raise a toast to my cousin and his new bride. I am sure you will make each other happy even though you live in two separate states.”
- “The presenter would like to raise a toast to his cousin and his new bride. He is sure they will make each other happy even though they live in two separate states.”
Once again, it gives the presentation a completely different feel. It is impersonal, mechanical, and would likely result in the groom cutting his cousin off from the bar for the rest of the night.
Combining First and Second Person Narratives
Of course, there are uses for a combination of first and second person narrative when writing on a more personal level. The primary use would be personal letters. Much like emails, personal correspondence relies heavily on first and second person narrative to give the reader a feeling of closeness with the writer.
- Dear Mary,
I planted a garlic garden today. I hope the neighbors won’t complain when the wind blows in their direction.
Now the letter switches to second person narrative because it goes from telling the personal story of the writer, to speaking to or asking about the reader.
- You were in my thoughts as I bit into that first, fresh piece of garlic. Yours was always the best I’ve ever tasted. So it made me wonder, “How does your garden grow, Mary?”
Second Person Narrative vs. Third Person Narrative
Let’s talk about writing in third person for a minute, as a means of distinguishing second from third person narrative. The third person narrative takes the point of view of a third party that generally is on the outside of a story, looking in or narrating the events as they unfold. As you can guess, it uses third person pronouns like he, she, or them.
This is important to note because third person narrative is generally reserved for storytelling and novels. It shows a dispassionate or somewhat omniscient view of the events that are being shared.
Now, that being said, writing in the third person can be used in business communications. However, it should be used only when you wish to convey a much less personal feel to your communication.
Hopefully, all of this helps you to understand second person narrative and point of view. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to jot down a note in the comments section below.