Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Top 20 Grammar Errors: unnecessary shift in person

Number eleven on our list of the top twenty grammar errors is the unnecessary shift in person,
otherwise known as the POV (Point of View) shift.

POV shifts simply confuse the reader, and there are two common shifts in person:
·         Third person to second person
·         First person to second person
Let’s go over what point of view is in the first place. The point of view is a component of the narrative voice of a piece of writing. There are several POVs:

·         First person
·         Second person
·         Third person
·         Alternating
·         Stream-of-consciousness
·         Unreliable
·         Epistolary
·         Subjective
·         Objective
·         Omniscient

In a first person narrative, the story is told from the perspective of I. Check out Jake Barnes from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises:

I could picture it. I have a habit of imagining the conversations between my friends. We went out to the Café Napolitain to have an aperitif and watch the evening crowd on the Boulevard.

I, I, I—right? All from Jake’s personal perspective.

Here’s an example of second person perspective from one of my favorite novels: Bright Lights, Big City (great 1980s movie too):

You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might become clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then again, it might not. A small voice inside you insists that this epidemic lack of clarity is a result of too much of that already.

The rule of thumb, of course, is to stay away from second person POV, but if Jay McInerney can do it, heck why not you too?
Third person point of view is told from the he, she, it, or they perspective, but never from the I, we, or you perspective. Here’s an example from Raymond Carver’s short They’re Not Your Husband:

Earl Ober was between jobs as a salesman. But Doreen, his wife, had gone to work nights as a waitress at a twenty-four hour coffee shop at the edge of town. One night, when he was drinking, Earl decided to stop by the coffee shop and have something to eat. He wanted to see where Doreen worked, and he wanted to see if he could order something on the house. He sat at the counter and studied the menu.
These three perspectives—first, second, and third—are your basic POVs. The last seven POVs—alternating, stream-of-consciousness, unreliable, epistolary, subjective, objective, and omniscient—are variations or flavors of the first three.

An alternating POV is often found in novels where the perspective changes between characters in a predictable manner. Probably the most famous novel that uses the alternating POV was published in 1930—Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, which utilizes 16 different POVs.

The stream of consciousness POV acts to replicate the thought process. The idea of stream of consciousness is normally attributed to James Joyce and Ulysses, but was probably pioneered by Dorothy Richardson—an author we don’t really read anymore but greatly influenced Joyce and Virginia Woolf.
The unreliable narrator is a POV you can’t trust. The epistolary POV is an exchange of letters or diary entries. Subjective allows the narrative voice to convey the thoughts, feelings, and opinions of one or more of the characters. Objective is the exact opposite of subjective. The narrator tells the story in much the same way a newspaper article remains objective. An omniscient point of view knows everything, and then on top of omniscient is also the limited-omniscient in which the narrator knows everything about certain elements of the story.

Lastly, I want to make a note that some will argue that you cannot have a first person omniscient, but I used it in Breath: An American Story, and Mark Zusak used it in The Book Thief:

Liesel had no idea where she was. All was white, and as they remained at the station, she could only stare at the faded lettering of the sign in front of her. For Liesel, the town was nameless, and it was there that her brother, Werner, was buried two days later… Mistakes, mistakes, it’s all I seem capable of at times. For two days, I went about my business. I traveled the globe as always, handing souls to the conveyor belt of eternity (Zusak).

I bring this first person omniscient debate up because as a fiction writer, you are free to do a lot of things with grammar that academic or other styles of writing just do not allow. Check out this thread, for example, at The Writer’s Water Cooler. Or this New York Times article on the plural I POV.
Set up your rules for your readers early on in the story, and you can get away with most anything. The key is consistency. What you don’t want to do is a POV shift at the micro or sentence level:

·         Incorrect: One can do well in school if you budget your time.
·         Correct: You can do well in school if you budget your time.

·         Incorrect: I used to think my parents were fussy, but as you get older you become more tolerant.
·         Correct: I used to think my parents were fussy, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more tolerant.
In the above two examples from the Seattle University Writing Center, we find the two most common POV shifts: third person to second person, and first person to second person.


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