Use of first, second, and third person in technical writing?

Subject: Use of first, second, and third person in technical writing?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 17 Aug 2005 15:45:26 -0400


Lisa Dugger wondered: <<Which is proper? Since I rarely see anything in first person, I gather that first person is not the desired viewpoint.>>

If you remember that documentation is about the user, not about you, you'll see why first person is rare. First-person plural is relevant and useful in some contexts, such as the following: "After losing several fingers during the development of this tool, we strongly recommend that you wear chainmail gloves while using it." OK, that's a facetious example, but it illustrates the point: "we" works well when you need to identify the source of a recommendation. However:

<<In the past I have written using second person because I wrote for my team members or individual users. Now I have an official tech writing position and I am unsure of which perspective to use. Third person sounds so stiff, but is it more professional?>>

Second person works best in many cases because it allows the use of the imperative voice: "Do this, then do that, then be glad you didn't lose any fingers." It's concise, focuses on the reader, and is generally quite effective... which is why it's becoming standard practice.

Of course, this is an example of where you're telling the reader to do something. When you're not, second person isn't necessary and may even be inappropriate. Consider, for example, how natural it is to say the following: "Gloves less than 2 inches thick won't protect your fingers." You could say "Wear gloves at least 2 inches thick...", but if you're describing a situation rather than telling someone to do something, second person isn't necessary.

Third person is generally less effective because it is more verbose and in some styles, distances the reader from the action. "Chainmail gloves should be worn" offers no benefits over "wear chainmail gloves--or else", and sets up an odd dynamic: "We're talking about the reader; if we had meant _you_, we'd have said _you_, so get over yourself already". That's why you find it "stiff". Moreover, using third person often (as in my example at the start of this paragraph) leads to inappropriate use of passive voice. Passive voice is inappropriate if it leaves the actor implicit when the actor should be explicitly identified. "The gloves should be worn" suggests, but does not make it clear, that you, the reader, should be the one who wears the gloves.

Third person is, of course, perfectly appropriate when you want to focus on "he or she or they" or "him, her, or them". For example: "After you install Microsoft FingerMangler(R), instruct users to wear gloves at all times. They must not use this evil device barehanded--we can attest to this from firsthand experience."

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Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)
www.geoff-hart.com
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Use of first, second, and third person in technical writing: From: Lisa Dugger

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