In this lesson you will be presented with two rules plus several explanations.
Do not shift person unnecessarily.
Notice the shift from second person in the first sentence, to first person in the second, and back to second person in the third. The type of shift in person indicated in the incorrect examples is common in speech. It is not acceptable in formal writing.
One of the most frequent errors in person agreement stems from unnecessary shifts from third person to second person because the writer does not want to appear sexist. Hence, people write things like this: “If a person is able, you should visit the Tyrrell Museum.”
Perhaps because this writer did not want to refer to a person as he, the writer used you. This is an incorrect shift in person. The sentence must be revised: “If a person is able, he [or she] should go to the Tyrrell Museum.”
To avoid many he and she references in a paragraph, where possible recast as plural (people, they): “If people are able, they should go to the Tyrrell Museum.”
Another incorrect shift occurs because of carry-over from speech. People often say things such as the following: “People go to West Edmonton Mall because it has every store you could want.”
In this sentence, you is supposed to refer to people in general. But in formal writing, there is no way to differentiate between you as people in general and you as the reader.
It is incorrect to refer to people in general as you in formal writing. The sentence must be revised: “People go to West Edmonton Mall because it has every store a person could want.” OR “People go to West Edmonton Mall because it has every store they could want.”
Unnecessary shifts in person are unacceptable in formal writing. You should be as consistent as possible in sentences, as well as in paragraphs.
It is not correct to shift person to avoid gender references. It is acceptable to refer to indefinite antecedents as he, she, or he or she. (If you are unclear about indefinite antecedents, you should read and work through the topic “Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement.”)
Avoid overuse of I, you, or one in formal writing.
Note that while the incorrect examples are acceptable in speech, they are not acceptable in formal writing.
Closely related to the problem of person agreement is tone. In general, the tone of a piece of writing determines its degree of formality. Prose entirely in first person (I) is unacceptable in formal writing. Unless the demand is for a personal opinion or response, an essay that uses I takes the focus away from the topic and puts it on the writer. In addition, using I reduces credibility, seeming to convey merely personal opinion or, at best, limited personal experience: “I think that the present federal government is corrupt.”
The sentence is better if it is written impersonally: “The federal government is corrupt.”
A first-person statement requires no proof because it is a personal opinion, but an impersonal statement is written as a fact, so it requires support.
A similar problem occurs with the use of you (writing in second person). Because there is no way to differentiate you as people in general from you as reader, you should be avoided in formal writing. Any piece of prose that is written in second person is too informal because its tone is one of conversation. Unless the prose is conveying direct instructions, second person should not be used: “Put on your boots and take out the garbage, please.”
In the previous sentence, you is understood (“You take out the garbage.”). The sentence is an example of instructions, even though you is not written.
If you refers to people in general, an indefinite pronoun or noun should be used instead: “Everyone knows that political polls are misleading.”
In an attempt to be formal, some writers make use of the indefinite one: “One thinks that one’s fortune is predetermined.”
Using one is too formal and is difficult to read. It is not acceptable in formal writing to refer to one as he: “One thinks that his fortune is predetermined.” If the sentence starts with one, it should continue that way.
The most appropriate tone is achieved through the use of third person. A writer can express his or her own ideas through the content and can use the support of general experience: “Some people think their fortunes are predetermined.”