As I review student assignments, I’m noticing one of the most common errors is the person shift. For example, in a report on business etiquette in other countries, a student writes, “In Sauda Arabia, men wear dark conservative suits. Avoid wearing short skirts if your a woman.” There! The writing just shifted voice from “third” detached voice to the “you” voice.
What’s the big deal here? Why does that matter? Well, in English we usually write in one of three “persons” : The first person is the “I” or “we” voice, the second person is the “you” voice, and the third, is from the point of view of someone else “he”, “she”,”it”, “they” to name a few pronouns. It’s important to keep the voice consistent; otherwise, the writing starts becoming more informal.
But since we often write the way we speak, we import some of the bad habits we get away with in the spoken form of the language. We shift voices and points of view without even thinking. Here’s an example of the “person shift”: you’re talking to your friend and start off by saying “if people work hard, then you’ll get an ‘A’ in the course”.
In conversation, that goes by you quickly. But in written English, it’s incorrect. You’ve shifted voice from third to second person in the same sentence. This is a very common error. To correct the above error, keep the whole phrase in one voice.
Correction: “If you work hard, you will get an A in the course.”
Here is another example of the person shift. In this one, the writer uses “you” instead of “I”.
Incorrect: I used to think my folks were eccentric, but as you get older you become more accepting.
Correct: I used to think my folks were eccentric, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more accepting.
See what I mean? Here’s another one.
Incorrect: You often get cold waiting for a bus in winter.
Correct: I often get cold waiting for a bus in Winter.
Again, it is better to use “I” instead of “you”.
Incorrect: You know how it feels to have the flu.
Correct: My recent episode of the flu was awful
So keep your point view consistent by watching out for the person shift. Writing needs to be conversational, but watching out for shifting voices or points of view in a sentence or a paragraph will improve your writing.