Is there a name for the device of changing between third person and second person in a poem? Basically going back and forth from talking about the subject and talking to the subject. This happens a lot in song lyrics. For example in the Elton John song "Daniel" during the verses he is singing about the subject:

Daniel is traveling tonight on a plane

But during the chorus he is singing to the subject:

Daniel my brother you are older than me. Do you still feel the pain of the scars that won't heal

I'm pretty sure I've heard it done in poetry too but I can't come up with an example right now.

  • 1
    I suppose this is a type of apostrophe . . . – ruakh Aug 9 '15 at 4:59

Here's an excellent example, Psalm 75, which in seven verses goes from the first person plural ("We praise you, God,....") to a second person, direct address to God ("You say, 'I choose the appointed time;....'") to a third person description of God ("It is God who judges:...."). Note that the second-person is a quotation of God, which requires a change inside the quotation to the first person to preserve the meaning.

This kind of change is called a "shift in person" or sometimes a "shift in point of view" or "POV shift." From a paper God does not sing. Identification of participants in Psalm 75 by Christiaan Erwich:

What voices can be heard in the Psalms? A great challenge of reading the poetry of the Psalms is the identification of participants. The major cause of this problem is a continual shift in person, number and gender (so-called PNG-shifts) in the text.

  • Your description of Psalm 75 makes it sound like there are two shifts (from first-person to second-person, from second-person to third-person), but there is actually only one shift (from addressing G-d in the second person to referring to G-d in the third person). – ruakh Aug 9 '15 at 6:56
  • I can't address the Hebrew. In the NIV translation there are four shifts. From the We (1st) of the first verse, to the You (2nd) quoting God, back to I (1st) referring to God speaking for himself in the quote, to the description of God (3rd). – deadrat Aug 9 '15 at 7:28
  • No, in the NIV translation there is only one shift, unless you think the sentence "I talked to her" demonstrates a mid-clause shift from first-person ("I") to third-person ("her"). (In the Hebrew you could make a case for a second shift, since the quotation is not explicitly marked as it is in the NIV.) – ruakh Aug 9 '15 at 7:51
  • The KJV is a horridly inaccurate translation of the Hebrew. Wait a minute, the KJV is based on the Greek septuagint, which then is a horridly inaccurate and fraudulent translation of the Hebrew. – Blessed Geek Aug 9 '15 at 8:23
  • Psalm 23 is an easier example. The LORD is my shepherd ... He reclines me in fresh vegetation, He surrounds me in encirclement of righteousness, He restores my soul .... And then ... for You are with me, Your staff and your sceptre they comfort me, You arrange a table for me confronting my enemies, You smoothen my head with oil, my cup runs over, surely goodness and mercy will pursue me all the days of my life, and I shall stay in the house of the LORD for lengthened days. – Blessed Geek Aug 9 '15 at 8:33

The supposition of your commenter ("I suppose this is a type of apostrophe") is correct. Also known, from another frame of reference, as 'direct address' or, more generally, a 'grammatical shift for rhetorical effect', the device is very common in poetry and lyrics. The claim has been made, perhaps most famously by Culler in The Pursuit of Signs (1981), that apostrophe is the defining or fundamental lyric trope.

Known in Arabic rhetoric as 'iltifat' (variously transliterated), the rich use of apostrophe in the Qur'an is sometimes used as a vehicle to illustrate or explain that work's untranslatability, inimitability and unique character. See, for example, "Apostrophe: A rhetorical device of the Qur’an". From the abstract:

Yet, apostrophe or “iltifāt” in Arabic as a rhetorical device is distinctly used in the Qur’anic discourse. This Qura’nic unmatched utilization of apostrophe aims at expressing a particular meaning or set of meanings by alternating between the use of first, second and third person pronouns, i.e., moving from the speaker to the addressee or the absent or vice versa to elucidate the same message.

The paper provides many examples and a detailed analysis of some Qur'anic apostrophes. Another paper, which explores a similar thesis, is "What is the Qur’ans Literary Form?". From that paper:

...the Qur’an uses literary and linguistic devices in such a way that has not been used before and achieves an unparalled communicative effect. This use of language, called stylistic variation or stylistic differences, includes, but is not limited to, ...Grammatical shifts (iltifaat), ....

and later,

This feature [iltifat] is an effective rhetorical device that enhances the text's literary expression and achieves the communicative goal; it is an accepted, well researched part of Arabic rhetoric.


These grammatical shifts include changes in person, change in number, change in addressee, change in tense, change in case marker, using a noun in place of a pronoun and many other changes. An example of this complex rhetorical feature is exhibited in the following verse. It changes to talking about God, in the third person, to God Himself speaking in the first person plural of majesty: “There is no good in most of their secret talk, only in commanding charity, or good, or reconciliation between people. To anyone who does these things, seeking to please God, We shall give a rich reward.”

EDIT: Before composing the answer given above, I went back and forth between interpreting the question as referring to one form of address, the second person direct address or 'apostrophe', and interpreting the question as referring to the shift from third to second person. Perhaps capriciously, I chose the former interpretation. If the latter interpretation is more precisely what the question entailed, the device employed would be more profitably examined as 'digression' (of which 'apostrophe' may be considered a type) or 'parenthesis'.

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