Word Work: Pronoun Agreement

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Years ago during a brief stint as a graduate teaching assistant, I taught incoming freshmen how to write essays in an English 101 class. Except for actually having to grade 60 essays every time I gave an assignment, I actually enjoyed the position. Many of these new co-eds came to college full of ambition and enthusiasm; only a few came ready to party. Most of them, though, came equipped with a cadre of grammar and punctuations issues just begging for correction with my red pen.

One common mistake among many of the essays I read was an inadvertent switch from first person to second person pronouns, what is sometimes called a “disagreement in point of view.” It would go something like this:

I knew growing up that I was different. You can’t help but feel that way when you are an artist in a small Midwestern town.

If just one or two students made this error occasionally, I might have felt like I could tackle it with a little maturity. But when nearly every student made the slip on several different assignments that semester, I started to get silly with my red pen. “Are you talking to me?” I might write in the margin of such a paper, trying to help them understand that the change in point of view actually creates confusion. Or sometimes I would write, “Leave me out of this,” to make the same point.

Freshman composition students aren’t the only ones who struggle with switching point of view mid-paragraph. People I know often make the switch mid-conversation. When professional athletes or local heroes or others are interviewed on television, they start answering a question about the big win or the dramatic save from the first person point of view—their own perspective. Then, suddenly they switch to second person. “I knew going into the game it was going to be tough. But you just do what you have to do.” Or, “I saw the family in the van, and you knew that you had to jump in and save them.”

Grammatically speaking, switching point of view mid-sentence, or even mid-essay, is incorrect. According to the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL), pronouns need to agree not only in person (first, second, or third), but also in number (singular or plural). When pronouns disagree, confusion erupts.

But personally speaking, I suspect I know why people do it, why people suddenly switch from first person to second person, even if it’s confusing. When the topic gets personal, second person is a way of saying, “This happens to all of us, right? Not just me?”

Sometimes, you have to write that way to keep you soul from leaking out. Right?

__________

Photo above by Pabak Sarkar, via Flickr, used with permission under the Creative Commons License.

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Charity Singleton Craig

Charity Singleton Craig is a writer, author, and speaker, helping readers grow in their faith and experience true hope in the middle of life’s joys and sorrows. She is the author of My Year in Words: what I learned from choosing one word a week for one year and coauthor of On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life That Lasts.


  • Laura Brown ,

    I think “you” is the new “one” in these constructions. One does what one has to do. And I am not so sure that this is always a grammatical error.

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      Charity Singleton Craig ,

      Laura – I think you are right about “you” being the new “one.” It grates heavily on my ears to hear the switch between perspective. But even though “one” is technically correct, that grates, too! I guess I need to realize that in the fast pace of our lives, perspectives are not static and neither is our language! Thanks for joining me in this word work.