Do First and Third Person Mix Well?

George, a regular reader of this blog, asked this question:

"In describing a client's services on their website, I wrote something like 'Acme does A and B. We can also help with C and D.' The client said mixing the third and first persons was confusing and I should stick to the third person. What do you and your readers think?"

Well, readers, what do you think? Is it acceptable to use the first person and third person in the same paragraph? Can George use Acme and we as subjects in back-to-back sentences?

The short answer does not require much thought: George can't because his client doesn't like it.

But should the client reconsider? Does it work to mix "persons" this way?

To help us consider George's question, I wrote fleshed out, realistic versions of what he is dealing with, based on my business: 

  1. Syntax Training offers in-house, public, and online business writing classes. Based in Seattle, Washington, we travel to client companies and training facilities in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. (Mixes third-person Syntax Training with first-person pronoun we.)
  2. Syntax Training offers in-house, public, and online business writing classes. Based in Seattle, Washington, Syntax Training travels to client companies and training facilities in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. (Uses third-person Syntax Training in both sentences.)
  3. We offer in-house, public, and online business writing classes. Located in Seattle, Washington, we travel to client companies and training facilities in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. (Uses first-person pronoun we in both sentences.)

I prefer Version 1, then Version 3. The mixed-person Version 1 identifies the company by name and then switches to the congenial we. 

To use Version 3, the writer must identify the company in an earlier sentence or heading. 

Version 2, with its consistent use of third person, uses Syntax Training awkwardly in the second sentence ("Syntax Training travels"). At least, it seems awkward to me. Also, consistent use of third person can come across as wooden.

If you, like George, want to mix persons (and your client or manager agrees to it), I offer these suggestions:

1. To avoid a cumbersome shift from one person to another, use first person and third person together at the beginning, like this: "At Acme [third person], we [first person] do A and B. We can also help with C and D."

2. Avoid a first- and third-person jumble. If you follow third person with first person, continue with first person to the end of the paragraph.

3. Be clear about who the first-person we is. 

4. If you use we, keep the company prominent by using its name as an adjective, like this: "We offer Syntax Training programs online too."

5. Whether you use first person or third person or both, be sure to appeal to the all-important second person: you, the reader. Example: "You can take Syntax Training classes online too."

How do you deal with the mix of first person and third person in your company documents? Would you add to or alter the suggestions above? George and I would enjoy learning your views.

Lynn
Syntax Training  

12 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Lynn, I’ve been reading your blog for a while now and I think it’s brilliant. Thank you.

    I have a similar issue in the user manuals that I write for various companies. Some companies prefer that I address the reader in the second person (“You should…”) and others prefer that I don’t use the second person at all. Do you know of any specific guidelines for software/hardware user manuals?

    Very best, Adrian

  2. Hi, Adrian. For specific guidelines, I recommend the “Microsoft Manual of Style,” which came out in a fourth edition this year.

    The manual uses both. For example, it shows “A user can change the default settings” and “You can change the default settings.”

    The problem with avoiding “you” is that the third person “a user” quickly becomes awkward when it is repeated. And “his or her” is clumsy as a pronoun replacement for “a user.”

    Good luck!

    Lynn

  3. I like the use of third person as a means to avoid the stiff-sounding repetition of the company name. I have seen some colleagues use it or its (possessive) frequently when referring to a company. What guidance can you offer on when to use it vs. we to refer to a business?

  4. I agree with your rankings based on your examples. I think Chuck’s question can have different answers based on what the purpose and audience for the document is. Do you want an intimate communication or are you trying to intimidate people? I’m betting marketing people would want the company name mentioned as much as possible for branding purposes.

    This issue is minimal for me because most of my writing and editing is done for administrative legal proceedings. In these documents we use a much more formal third person style because we are speaking on behalf of the company. No one cares what my opinion is, they care what the company’s position is. I find myself rearranging sentences to avoid the use of me, I or my.

    For example, “I compared X and Y” becomes “X was compared to Y.”

  5. Isn’t there some sort of grammar rule that makes it acceptable to “mix” first and third person when the third “person” is actually a company? It seems to me that it should be acceptable in that case, because a company is an entity made up of many people, rather than just one individual.

    For example, I certainly would not say, “I am a good listener. Lisa will always listen when you need a friend.” That just sounds silly and doesn’t make sense. However, it sounds correct to write, “Acme Company can help you with your inventory control needs. We are experts at designing inventory systems.” The person writing that statement is part of Acme Company, so they can use the name of the company as well as express their participation in the company with the word “we.”

    Does anyone know of any specific rules that would apply here? Now I am very curious!

  6. Hi, Chuck. Thanks for your comment. I believe you meant to write “I like the first person” rather than “I like the third person,” since third person would include repetition of the company name.

    One bit of guidance I can offer on using “it” or “we” when referring to a company, is to choose one of them rather than mixing third person and first person. Such a mix can lead to subject-verb agreement problems and convoluted sentences.

    You’ve given me an idea for another blog post. Thanks!

    Lynn

  7. Jennifer, thanks for sharing your perspective. I agree that a document’s purpose and audience are decisive factors when choosing “we” or “it.”

    Thanks for your x and y example. If you want to avoid passive constructions, you can write, “In a comparison of x and y, y showed a higher . . . ”

    Lynn

  8. Hi, Lisa Marie. I was curious too. However, I could not find any rules on the topic George raised. That is why I explored the topic for him and suggested guidelines.

    Your example with “I” and “Lisa” reminds me of parents who refer to themselves as “Daddy” or “Mommy” when they talk to their small children. Such parents are the only people I can think of who mix “I” with the third person effectively. It’s all about the audience!

    Thanks for commenting.

    Lynn

  9. Lynn, thanks for your response and for giving me a good laugh this morning- I love that example of parents using the third person to talk to their kids! It truly is all about the audience, I guess!

  10. I talk in third person in my kindergarten classroom often. “Mrs. Smith loves the color yellow, too!” and also with my own children as you mentioned above. “Mommy said so, that’s why.” However, I am in the process of writing a cookbook and have given myself a ficticious name to match the title. Ex: Little Miss Mixing Bowl. Because I want the title and concept to be carried throughout the book but not every single time I tell a story or give a tip, I have been mixing first and third person and am starting to wonder if it sounds strange. Example: Little Miss Mixing Bowl knows a good batch of frosting when she sees one. Followed by- I recommend using butter instead of margerine. What are your thoughts on this? Looking forward to hearing your advice!

  11. Hi, Randi. My first thought is that your “Little Miss” statements should be useful gems that appear separate from the text, for example, in sidebars. In sidebars, you would not need to worry about mixing “Little Miss” and a first-person pronoun.

    To be useful, your sample sentence would need to be something like this: “Little Miss Mixing Bowl recommends using butter instead of margarine.”

    I hope this suggestion helps.

    Lynn

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