Boyhood of Raleigh, John Everett Millais, via Wikimedia Commons
Finished in 1870, Boyhood of Raleigh depicts Sir Walter Raleigh and his brother sitting captivated by tales of the ocean. Look at the faces of the boys. One is sitting with his knees at his chest, visibly concerned; the other, chin resting on hands, leaning forward, waiting for the next detail, waiting for resolution, waiting patiently.
The art of a good story is really the art of narration. The boys are captivated by the sailor; his ability to build tension, to carefully construct plot, to detail characters free of judgement, to reveal enough to keep the boys interested, but not so much that they lose interest–this is the art of a storyteller.
Perhaps this seems irrelevant for the SAT or GRE essay. However, whether convincing readers of an opinion or captivating them with a sea shanty, all writers need to decide on a narrator, a perspective–the decision about who is going to speak.
For the SAT and GRE essay, this decision is all about pronouns.
When you write your essay for the test, don’t shift narrative voice. That means that you should be consistent in your use of pronouns. Aside from the occasional use of the personal pronoun “I,” your essay should be in third person.
You might be thinking, “Great! What does that mean?” Fret not. The rest of this article will give you a quick review of first, second, and third person as well as a list of the common problem areas involving shifting narrative voice.
First Person (I, me, mine, etc.): narrator has a limited perspective; narrator is a part of the story; actions and events are described from one perspective.
Examples: personal experiences, informal messages, emails, conversations, novels, biographies.
Second Person (you, your, etc.): narrator directly addresses the reader, usually to command, direct, or explain how to do something.
Examples: how-to essays, instructions, manuals, recipes, directions.
Third Person (she, he, it, they, Barack Obama, etc.): narrator has complete knowledge of all the characters’ thoughts and actions, or the narrator has limited knowledge of the characters’ thoughts and actions; narrator does not participate in the action or the story; narrator can appear non-biased.
Examples: SAT and GRE essays, formal documents, science journals, newspaper articles, essays for school, law documents.
Common Problem Areas
Problems with shifting narrative voice can occur within the same sentence or among many sentences. Below you will find common shifts that students make in narrative voice leading to faulty expressions.
I. one and you
FAULTY: One can clearly see a distinction between the two: Wildcat was written in a kind of obsolete vernacular, and War and Peace was written in a Russian vernacular. You can see the difference in the following experts.
CORRECT: …One can see the difference in the following experts.
II. we/our and you
FAULTY: Truth be told, our chance of victory was slim and we couldn’t expect our team to come out on top. But we went out on the court and played with heart. You overcame exhaustion to beat the state champions!
CORRECT: Truth be told, our chance of victory was slim and we couldn’t expect our team to come out on top. But we went out on the court and played with heart. We overcame exhaustion to beat the state champions!
III. everyone and you
FAULTY: Everyone must remember these simple steps to ensure a moist roasted turkey for thanksgiving: (1) Brine your turkey. (2) Roast your turkey slow and low. (3) Let the turkey rest 30 – 45 minutes before you slice.
If you are giving instructions or describing how something is done, stick with second person.
CORRECT: You must remember these simple steps to ensure a moist roasted turkey for thanksgiving: (1) Brine your turkey. (2) Roast your turkey slow and low. (3) Let the turkey rest 30 – 45 minutes before you slice.
IV. singular noun and plural pronoun
FAULTY: A CEO is often stereotyped as a greedy, immoral, take-no-prisoners predator. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. More often than not, they are trustworthy, respectable, and honest people who inspire loyalty and hard work in their employees.
It’s easier to change the noun than correct the plural pronouns in this case.
CORRECT: CEOs are often stereotyped as greedy, immoral, take-no-prisoners predators. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. More often than not, they are trustworthy, respectable, and honest people who inspire loyalty and hard work in their employees.
Remember that your essay will be in third person on the SAT and GRE. Staying consistent with narrative voice requires you to be consistent with your pronouns. So, as with most grammar rules, be consistent and you’ll be fine.
Be excellent and happy studying!