Grammatical person, in linguistics, is used for the grammatical categories a language uses to describe the relationship between the speaker and the persons or things she is talking about. Grammatical person typically defines a language's set of personal pronouns. It also frequently affects verbs, sometimes nouns, and possessive relationships as well.
English traditionally distinguishes three grammatical persons:
The personal pronouns "I" and "we" are said to be in the first person. The speaker uses this in the singular to refer to himself; in the plural, to speak of a group of people of which he is a member.
The personal pronoun "you" is the second person pronoun. It refers to the person spoken to. You is used in both the singular and plural; the old second person singular pronoun, thou, is archaic in modern English.
All other pronouns and all nouns are in the third person. This person is traditionally defined to be what is spoken of or anything that is not first or second person. People who are neither the speaker nor the person spoken to, and any inanimate objects, are referred to in the third person.
In Indo-European languages, first, second, and third person pronouns are all marked for singular and plural forms, and perhaps dual forms as well. Some languages, especially in Western Europe, distinguish degrees of formality and informality. Common ways of doing this include using the second person plural pronoun as a singular in formal situations (as in French); or using an old third person noun, with its third person verb forms, as a second person form of address (as in Spanish with the word usted). European languages that exhibit these features of contrasting formality and informality have a T-V distinction, named for tu and vous, the informal and formal second person pronouns in French. (Compare thou for archaic T-V distinctions in English).
Other languages use different classifying schemes, especially in the plural pronouns. One frequently found difference not present in most Indo-European languages is a contrast between inclusive "we", a first person plural pronoun which includes the person addressed in the group of "us," and exclusive "we", which excludes the person addressed. These languages would use different pronouns, verb forms, or both to translate these two sentences:
- We can go into the forest and have adventures.
- We mean to stop your evil scheme, Doctor Doom!
Many of the Dravidian languages use these distinctions in grammatical person; they exist elsewhere as well.
Other languages have much more elaborate systems of formality that go well beyond the T-V distinction, and use many different pronouns and verb forms that express the speaker's relationship with the people she addresses. The Japanese language has one well known such system; many Malayo-Polynesian languages have them as well.
- I am (first-person singular)
- You are (second-person)
- He, she or it is (third-person singular)
- We are (first-person plural)
- They are (third-person plural)
When "first person", "second person", and "third person" are used as adjectives, they should be hyphenated.
The grammars of some languages divide the semantic space into more than three persons. The extra categories may be termed fourth person, fifth person, etc. Terms such as "fourth person" are not absolute but can refer depending on context to any of several phenomena.
Some languages, the most well-known examples being Algonquian languages, divide the category of third person into two parts: proximate for a more topical third person and obviative for a less topical third person. The obviative is sometimes called the fourth person.
The term fourth person is also sometimes used for the category of indefinite or generic referents, that work like one in English phrases such as "one should be prepared", when the grammar treats them differently from ordinary third person forms.