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I am aware of the terms first person, second person and third person from grammar, but I have also seen them used in other contexts, in particular first person perspective with regard to video games.

What is the precise meaning of first person perspective? Can the terms second person and third person be applied to perspectives in the same way?

As far as my limited understanding of grammar goes, I know that the first person is written with "I" forms, second with "you" forms, and third with "he/her/it" forms. Is this grammatical meaning related to the meaning with perspectives, and if so, how?

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I have taken the liberty of editing your question, in a way that I hope will (a) make it acceptably on-topic to those with the power to re-open it, and (b) still cover the information you are hoping to discover. Please do edit it further if I'm off the mark... –  psmears Apr 7 '11 at 15:05
    
@psmears Thank you for the edit. The question is now a little more broad than I initially intended, but if this makes it allowable, then fantastic. –  Glen Wheeler Apr 7 '11 at 15:52
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This still seems to me to be a linguistics question, as it asks to relate grammatical person to perspectives; this doesn't have anything specifically to do with English, but rather requires an exploration of personhood. However, the part about the precise meaning of "first person perspective" and whether or not there is "second-" and "third-person perspective" in English is on-topic. Since it was getting "reopen" votes, I have reopened it. Let's see how it goes. –  Kosmonaut Apr 7 '11 at 19:59
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@psmears Great job on the edit to turn this into an allowable question. Excellent form, what! –  Uticensis Apr 7 '11 at 22:09
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2 Answers

up vote 14 down vote accepted

"First person", in the context of an utterance, is the speaker. In literature, first-person perspective would mean the main character would be written as "I". Visually, in first-person perspective, the view of the camera is precisely the view of the main character.

"Second person" is the listener. In literature, this means the main character is written as "you". The second-person perspective in an interactive visual medium is rare because it would be the perspective of whatever the main character was interacting with. But occasionally it has been used: for example, a certain stage of in the NES game Battletoads, where you fight with an enemy but view the action through the eyes of the enemy.

"Third person" is someone else, neither the speaker nor the listener. Neither "I" nor "you" would be used by the narrator of this story to describe the main character. Visually, third-person perspective is a view from some other place. The camera can move independently of the action of the main character or the things around him. Or the camera can remain stationary.

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Thank you. This was exactly what I was looking for. –  Glen Wheeler Apr 7 '11 at 20:53
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The grammatical terms first/second/third person are opaque (in the sense that, if you don't already know the meaning, you'd be very lucky to guess it). As it happens the terms used in Arabic are much more illuminating:

  • First person = "the speaker": the person (or people) talking (or writing), or the group on whose behalf they are talking.
  • Second person = "the addressed": the person to whom the speech/writing is directed.
  • Third person = "the absent": someone who is neither speaking nor being spoken to.

These terms are used to classify words according to who they refer to: as you mention in the question, when it comes to pronouns, I and we belong to the first person, you to the second, and he/she/it/they to the third person. But there are other uses for the terms too - for instance the verb form goes is exclusively used for the third person.

(That's more than enough about the use of the terms in grammar.)

The same terms have been borrowed from grammar to describe certain types of narrative in literature:

  • A first person narrative is one told from the perspective of someone who is inside the story (Reader, I married him). This name derives from the fact that such a narrative will often use forms such as "I saw ..." and "It made me feel ...", but note that by no means all of the verbs and pronouns in such a narrative will be first person - there will usually be plenty of third person forms too. Such a narrative will only give the perspective of that one character - so, for instance, it will not describe the thoughts and feelings of other characters, unless they are apparent to the narrator. (This is true in general, but of course some authors do like to play with the form and include observations that the narrator character would not be privy to.)
  • A third person narrative, by contrast, is told from the perspective of someone outside the story (There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it) - usually someone omniscient, who can see into the thoughts, feelings and motivations of all of the characters. Usually all of the pronouns and verbs (other than those in quoted speech) will be in the third person.

The term second person is not commonly used in this sense. (It might make sense to do so for some of those "adventure game" books, where you get to choose your own ending - You are in a long corridor. Turn to page 25 to go east, or 132 to go west - but this is not a standard usage.)

Moving on to video games:

  • First person, by analogy with the first person narrative, refers to a game in which the perspective given to the player is that of one of the characters inside the game's story.
  • Third person, then, refers to a view that is removed from any of the characters that exist within the game's story - a bird's eye view of the game's world, or a perspective view of it from a camera - would qualify for this definition.

Once again, second person is not commonly used: it could perhaps be apt for text adventures (You are in a maze of twisty passages, all alike... You are likely to be eaten by a grue), but this is certainly nonstandard.

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Thank you! This is also a fantastic answer. Somehow I wish I could accept more than one. –  Glen Wheeler Apr 7 '11 at 22:00
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Second person narratives do exist in literature, but they are uncommon because they're hard to do convincingly. The only novel that springs immediately to my mind is Molly Zero by Keith Roberts, though I know there are others. I've managed a 1200 word effort myself, but it's a really disconcerting style to write in. –  user1579 Apr 7 '11 at 22:43
    
+1 for mentioning the rare instances of second person perspective games. –  user867 May 14 '13 at 5:54
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protected by tchrist May 13 '13 at 10:29

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