Grammatical person, in linguistics, is used for the grammatical categories a language uses to describe the relationship between the speaker and the persons or things she is talking about. Grammatical person typically defines a language's set of personal pronouns. It also frequently affects verbs, sometimes nouns, and possessive relationships as well.
English traditionally distinguishes three grammatical persons:
The personal pronouns "I" and "we" are said to be in the first person. The speaker uses this in the singular to refer to himself; in the plural, to speak of a group of people of which he is a member.
The personal pronoun "you" is the second person pronoun. It refers to the person spoken to. You is used in both the singular and plural; the old second person singular pronoun, thou, is archaic in modern English.
All other pronouns and all nouns are in the third person. This person is traditionally defined to be what is spoken of or anything that is not first or second person. People who are neither the speaker nor the person spoken to, and any inanimate objects, are referred to in the third person.
In Indo-European languages, first, second, and third person pronouns are all marked for singular and plural forms, and sometimes dual forms as well, whereas members of some other language families extend the idea further and even have trial pronoun forms. Some languages, especially in Western Europe, distinguish degrees of formality and informality. Common ways of doing this include using the second person plural pronoun as a singular in formal situations (as in French); or using an old third person noun, with its third person verb forms, as a second person form of address (as in Spanish with the word usted). European languages that exhibit these features of contrasting formality and informality have a T-V distinction, named for tu and vous, the informal and formal second person pronouns in French. (See also thou for archaic T-V distinctions in English).
Other languages use different classifying schemes, especially in the plural pronouns. One frequently found difference not present in most Indo-European languages is a contrast between inclusive "we", a first person plural pronoun which includes the person addressed in the group of "us," and exclusive "we", which excludes the person addressed. These languages would use different pronouns, verb forms, or both to translate these two sentences:
- We can go into the forest and have adventures.
- We hope to have you on board ship.
Many of the Dravidian languages use these distinctions in grammatical person; they exist elsewhere as well.
Other languages have much more elaborate systems of formality that go well beyond the T-V distinction, and use many different pronouns and verb forms that express the speaker's relationship with the people she addresses. The Japanese language has one well known such system; many Malayo-Polynesian languages have them as well.
In many languages, the verb takes a form dependent on this person and whether it is singular or plural. In English, this happens with the verb "to be".
- I am (first-person singular)
- You are (second-person)
- He, she or it is (third-person singular)
- We are (first-person plural)
- They are (third-person plural)
When "first-person", "second-person", and "third-person" are used as adjectives, they should be hyphenated.
The grammar of some languages divide the semantic space into more than three persons. The extra categories may be termed fourth person, fifth person, etc. Terms such as "fourth person" are not absolute but can refer depending on context to any of several phenomena.
Some languages, the most well-known examples being Algonquian languages, divide the category of third person into two parts: proximate for a more topical third person and obviative for a less topical third person. The obviative is sometimes called the fourth person.
The term fourth person is also sometimes used for the category of indefinite or generic referents, that work like one in English phrases such as "one should be prepared", when the grammar treats them differently from ordinary third person forms.
Use of grammatical person in creative media
In literature, 'person' is used to describe the viewpoint from which the narrative is presented. Although second person perspectives are occasionally used, the most commonly encountered are first and third person. Third person omniscient specifies a viewpoint in which readers are provided with information not available to characters within the story; without this qualifier, readers may or may not have such information.
In movies and videogames first- and third-person are often used to describe camera viewpoints; the former being a character's own, and the latter being the more familiar "general" camera showing a scene. The second-person may also be used.
For example, in a horror film, the first-person perspective of an antagonist could become a second-person perspective on a potential victim's actions. A third-person shot of the two characters could be used to show the narrowing distance between them.
In videogames, a first-person perspective is used most often in the first-person shooter genre, such as in Doom. Third-person perspectives on characters are normally used in the adventure genre, for example Resident Evil. Since the arrival of 3D computer graphics in games it is often possible for the player to switch between first- and third-person perspectives at will. This is often to improve accuracy of weapons use in generally third-person games, or to give a better idea of the positioning of the player's character in a first-person game.
Some of the text based adventure games of the 1980s were in the second person, telling the character what she or he is doing. This practice has largely fallen by the wayside, but is still encountered occasionally in text-based segments of modern games.
One of the few examples of a second-person perspective in a modern videogame is in Metal Gear Solid. During one set-piece battle, attempting to enter the first-person view instead shows the antagonist's view of the player's avatar.