Using Stick Figures to Understand First, Second, and Third Person
If you’ve ever studied a second language or even spent time with a literature teacher who was fond of grammar, you’ve probably encountered the terms first, second, and third person. But where do they come from and how do you remember which is which?
I wrote for Grammar Girl about why the terms first, second, and third person actually make a whole lot of sense, using cute diagrams!
I ended up using “it” for each of the stick figures, because I wanted an unambiguously singular pronoun, I didn’t want to gender them, and using a Spivak or other newer pronoun would have been an extra thing to explain in the middle of a different explanation. I think it sounds fine though, so I guess we can add stick figures to the group of entities that can take either the third singular animate (she/he) or inanimate (it) pronoun, depending on one’s attitude (other members are babies, pets, and other animals).
Other terms that are used in more theoretical linguistic literature with first, second, and third person include fourth person (also known as obviative), speech act participant (SAP: first plus second persons), non-speech act participant (non-SAP: third person(s)), local (=SAP), non-local (=non-SAP). If a language has different marking for animate and inanimate third persons, the inanimate is sometimes also referred to as a zeroth person.
The Wikipedia article about the obviative is actually pretty incomplete. Anyone want to help improve it?