The Pronoun Breakdown: Which One’s Right For Me?

Pronouns are back, and it’s time to understand what they can do for your writing once and for all. In digital writing, choosing the right pronoun is a challenge. When we’re crafting web pages and home pages, the clients requesting the content don’t always know what voice they should use. This isn’t something to be ashamed of. It’s something that needs to be explained better.

First of all, there are three choices, but they aren’t mutually exclusive. We’ll talk more about that later. The choices we have for choosing personal pronouns are:

First person

I

We

Second person

You

You

Third person

He/She/It

They

Back in foreign language class, teaching materials broke down plural and singular pronouns in a nice, simple way. All singular pronouns, I, you, he, she and it are in the left-hand column. The plural pronouns we and they are always in the right-hand column, and they progress in the same order: first person, second person and third person.

For more info about grammatical persons, visit Grammar Girl for an in-depth explanation.

First Person

Let’s start with the first person. Although the name is odd, everyone is familiar with the first person. We use the first person when we’re talking about our day at the office. In books, the first person is traditionally used as a narrative. First person has several cases (nominative, objective and possessive), but it always uses some form of I, me or my.

If we’re writing for a company, the first person “we” is a great option. If Bob owns a one-man show landscaping company, the singular first person “I” would be the best choice. As a general rule, first person is ideal when speaking directly as a company.

Second Person

Here’s where the second person comes in. If the company is “we,” who are the customers? For most content that is appearing on a company website and addressing the reader directly, the answer is you. In English, you is a singular pronoun, but we also treat it like an informal plural pronoun, so there is some mixing and matching going on.

Third Person

Now, it’s time to talk about the third person. This one is tricky. Third person writing is best when content is designed to be general, impartial and non-promotional. This adds credibility, and it doesn’t single out the reader. Third person is also valuable when we’re talking about sensitive topics, but we don’t want to judge the reader. Things like payday loans and insurance are easier to discuss when we use personal examples and direct the user to take action. If we’re talking about an infertility clinic or an attorney who specializes in foreclosures, addressing the reader directly can be uncomfortable.

Third person requires the pronouns he, she, it or they. We can also use generalizations like customers, homeowners and clients. Although these aren’t pronouns, addressing clients or homeowners directly is a much nicer alternative than using he/she, it or they.

Which One’s Right For Me?

Professionally, the “we/you” setup is ideal for company web pages. Third person should be used in informational content, encyclopedia-style articles and journalistic pieces. Press releases, for example, must always be written in the third person. The only exception is when quoting a company representative. For most marketing materials, it’s a great idea to address your target audience directly by using a combination of first and second person pronouns.

If you’d ask me “which grammatical person is right?” I would have to say that there’s no definitive answer. But, I can say that if you choose the wrong one, writing will be more difficult, and if you choose the right one, the words will flow more smoothly. The right grammatical person will emphasize your key points and address the reader in a comfortable and clear manner.

If you have any questions about choosing the correct grammatical person, just ask!

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