A shift in perspective occurs when your use of verbs and pronouns is inconsistent. There are five different shifts to watch out for (three for verbs, two for pronouns).
Before we look at the two types of pronoun shifts, we need to review a few facts about pronouns.
Pronouns are either singular or plural in number. In addition, pronouns are either first, second, or third person.
An easy way to remember the difference is to say, “I will be the first person to tell you (the second person) that she is the third person.” In other words, the first person is the speaker, the second person is spoken to, and the third person is spoken about.
To make this a bit more visual, here’s a chart of the most common personal pronouns:
If you want some more review, check out the pronouns page.
Shifts in Person
Here’s an example of a shift in person:
Dear fellow graduates, now that we have crossed the stage, you have a bright future ahead of you.
First person pronoun: we
Second person pronoun: you
Presumably this should all be in the first person. However, it’s good to remind ourselves that sometimes a shift in perspective makes sense:
Dear fellow graduates, now that we have crossed the stage, you have a bright future ahead of you. I, on the other hand, have student loans.
Sometimes the speaker actually does have a different point of view.
Shifts in number
Shifts in number are more common, especially in student essays.
Here’s a shift from one (singular) to their (plural):
One should not let their friends pressure them into smoking.
Correct: Kids should not let their friends pressure them into smoking.
Notice that it’s often easiest to shift the whole sentence into the plural. Otherwise you would have to make multiple changes.
Watch out also for groups or organizations that consist of many members but are grammatically singular:
Even though the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has less and less control over its members, rumours circulate that they will try to ramp up the production of oil.
Correct: Even though the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has less and less control over its members, rumours circulate that it will try to ramp up the production of oil.
It’s easy to shift from it to they when dealing with a collective entity.
Avoid awkward shifts in tense. The following sentence, for instance, suddenly jumps from the past to the present tense:
After Toyotomi Hideyoshi died in 1598, the heir to the throne was too young to govern, and the resulting power vacuum leads to the Battle of Sekigahara, in 1600.
By the way, there is no universal consensus on what tense to use in talking about literary texts and other written documents. For instance, historians tend to treat texts and their contents as part of the past, whereas English teachers see the text as timeless, or as immediately present to the reader.
Compare, for instance, the following two sentences:
In Shakespeare’s play, Henry V tells his soldiers before the Battle of Agincourt that “gentlemen in England now a-bed / Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here.”
According to Shakespeare, Henry V told his soldiers before the Battle of Agincourt that “gentlemen in England now a-bed / Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here.”
Whereas the first sentence describes only the action in the play, the second sentence is much more concerned with historical fact, and so the past tense makes more sense.
Yet there is some leeway here, so be careful when you’re relating literary texts to their historical context, especially when different disciplines have varying conventions.
A verb comes in one of the following moods:
1. Indicative: a simple statement or question.
We are having a party. (statement)
Do you like our party? (question)
2. Imperative: a command to do something.
Come to our party!
3. Subjunctive: a conditional statement.
Had you been less busy, you could have come to our party. (statement contrary to fact)
I might come to your party if you invite me. (hypothetical statement)
I wish you were here. (a wish)
We hope that you come to our party (a suggestion)
He insisted that she come to the party (a demand)
Clearly, the subjunctive mood is the trickiest one.
Now, experience will tell you that sentences often shift from one mood to another. The key is to avoid unnecessary shifts, as in the following examples.
1. A shift from the subjunctive to the indicative:
I would write a letter to my Minister of Parliament if the cost of ink was not so horrendously expensive.
Correct: I would write a letter to my Minister of Parliament if the cost of ink were not so horrendously expensive.
2. A shift from the imperative to the subjunctive.
Come see our performance of H.M.S. Pinafore, and you should bring your boyfriend too!
Correct: Come see our performance of H.M.S. Pinafore, and bring your boyfriend too!
Verbs are either in the active voice or in the passive voice. In the active voice the subject of the sentence is doing the action, whereas in the passive voice the action is happening to the subject.
Here’s a sentence with a verb in the active voice:
Kayla read thirteen books on her holiday.
Active voice: read.
And here’s the passive version:
Thirteen books were read by Kayla.
Subject: Thirteen books.
Passive voice: is sponsored.
It’s useful to remember that the passive voice often leads to a by construction (by Kayla) that tells you who or what is actually performing the action of the verb. Once you find the implied subject, it’s relatively easy to make the sentence active.
If you want to be more direct and concise, try use the active voice. Either way, try to avoid awkward shifts such as the following:
Andrew won the golf tournament. In the process, a new course record was set.
In this example, the second sentence unnecessarily shifts to the passive voice.
And that’s it for shifts of perspective.
Exercise: Shifts in Perspective 1