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I was searching for an excerpt from one of Terry Pratchett's books, because I was trying to remember an example of Second Person voice that I once read.

Here is the excerpt I was looking for:

Let the eye of your imagination be a camera...

This is the universe, a glittering ball of galaxies like the ornament on some unimaginable Christmas tree.

Find a galaxy...

Focus

This is a galaxy, swirled like the cream in a cup of coffee, every pinpoint of light a star.

Find a star...

Focus

This is a solar system, where planets barrel through the darkness around the central fires of the sun. Some planets hug close, hot enough to melt lead. Some drift far out, where the comets are born.

Find a blue planet...

Focus

This is a planet. Most of it is covered in water. It's called Earth.

Find a country...

Focus

...blues and greens and browns under the sun, and here's a pale oblong, which is...

Focus

...an airport, a concrete hive for silver bees. There's a...

Focus

...building full of people and noise, and...

Focus

...a hall of lights and bustle, and...

Focus

...a bin full of rubbish, and...

Focus

...a pair of tiny eyes...

Focus

...

Focus

...

Focus

...

Click!

Masklin slid cautiously down an old burger carton

To me this reads as second person voice, but let, focus and find are all imperative I think. There's a possibility there's something I'm missing that means this isn't second person voice. What is throwing me off is that the imperative mood doesn't feel as direct to the reader as if it had said, "You focus on..." Or "You find...".

Is this still an example of Second Person voice/narrator in Terry Pratchett's writing, or has something thrown me off?

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  • Second-person voice means the whole story or a large part of it is told using "you", addressing the reader as if they were a character with the personality and life story defined by the writer (and not just a reader who has come to the book with their own life story). It is common for a writer to address a reader occasionally while writing in the first or third person: "Sit down, let me tell you a story." This looks like it might be such an address to the reader, to be followed by a third-person narration. But without reading the book I can't be sure which is happening here.
    – Stuart F
    Jul 22, 2022 at 14:55
  • @StuartF it is possible to switch voice in a story though. I do highly recommend this series by the way. Jul 22, 2022 at 17:18

2 Answers 2

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I am no Grammarian, and if strictly grammar is what you are looking for there are some fairly eminent voices over on EL&U such as John Lawler (his CV) who would undoubtedly be able to give you an unimpeachable opinion on it.

I am not they, so I'm using Wikipedia to support my view that the use of an Imperative doesn't stop it being Second Person.

The imperative mood is used to demand or require that an action be performed. It is usually found only in the present tense, second person.

Your issue with it seems to be an interpretation of the Imperative seeming impersonal, because 'you' is not appended. However, the versions you suggest 'you focus on' rather than 'focus' would change the sense from an instruction to a description of the reader's actions, robbing the authorial voice of authority and placing the motive force with the reader.

The 'you' in an imperative is still there, it is just that it's implied.

The imperative mood is used for expressing commands, requests, and so on. So by its very nature an imperative is directly addressed to someone, and an imperative sentence typically has the second-person “you” as its implied subject.

Grammarphobia.com

That difference between an implied and an explicit 'you' makes a world of difference to how the verb reads. Imperatives can have an urgency and directness that the addition of 'you' can dilute.

If the section was written with 'you focus on', the narrator would just be a voice telling me what he observes me doing, rather than guiding and helping me to do it.

I tried taking the imperatives out of the passage and replacing them with 'you let', 'you focus' and 'you find':

You let the eye of your imagination be a camera...

This is the universe, a glittering ball of galaxies like the ornament on some unimaginable Christmas tree.

You find a galaxy...

You focus on the galaxy, swirled like the cream in a cup of coffee, every pinpoint of light a star.

You find a star and you focus in on its solar system, where planets barrel through the darkness around the central fires of the sun. Some planets hug close, hot enough to melt lead. Some drift far out, where the comets are born.

You find a blue planet and you focus on it. Most of it is covered in water. It's called Earth.

You find a country and you focus on it, it shows blues and greens and browns under the sun, and there's a pale oblong, which you focus on. It is an airport, a concrete hive for silver bees. There's a building there that you focus on, which is full of people and noise.

You focus on a hall inside the building full of lights and bustle, and you focus again on a bin full of rubbish, and you focus further until you see a pair of tiny eyes.You focus on them, a lot.

Click!

Masklin slid cautiously down an old burger carton

Because the verbs are now woven into more regular second person voice sentences the repetition of 'focus' loses its power and it feels as though the writer just ran out of ways to say 'look closer' and it doesn't carry us through the layers in the same way. The passage loses that cinematic zoom that takes us through space, through the layers of the atmosphere and the structure of the building itself.

In this passage, Pratchett essentially swaps his role from Narrator to Director when he tells us, the reader, to let the eye of their imagination become a camera. In that first sentence he establishes that he is talking to 'you', let the eye of your imagination become a camera. You are operating the camera, he is directing your actions, describing what you see as you follow his direction, then instructing again until we arrive at his desired level of focus, arrive at Masklin.

For myself, I've always found these passages in the Wings trilogy intensely direct, as if, with my eye as the camera and all my attention channeled down the barrel of the lens, Pratchett is speaking directly into my consciousness to make sure I frame the shot exactly as he intends.

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  • Ah, so like I suspected it is still an example of Second person voice. I probably wasn't too clear in my question, but I have no issue with this technique - in fact it stuck with me all these year because of how much I like it. My main concern was less that imperative made it not second person, and more that this may have been something else which combined with a different voice made it merely seem like second person. I would edit that into my question, but I don't want to invalidate this excellent answer. Jul 22, 2022 at 13:11
  • Do please feel free to reword your question to make sure you get the answer you need! It is a great passage though, isn’t it?
    – Spagirl
    Jul 23, 2022 at 11:35
  • It really is! I've edited my question by the way Jul 23, 2022 at 12:13
  • Did my previous edit change any of your answer? Jan 2 at 19:10
  • I didn’t mean that I would change my answer, I’ve answered to the extent of my grammatical knowledge which doesn’t lead me to conclude there is anything else at play. My suggestion of changing your question was in the hope another person might have a different answer. I think you are mistaken in the view that the imperative is somehow less direct here than were ‘you’ to be specifically stated, and I demonstrated why in my answer.
    – Spagirl
    Jan 2 at 21:11
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This is not second person voice, but rather apostrophe where the narrator is addressing the reader. A true second person voice is one in which the protagonist is “you.” The boundary between the two can be slippery as in the second-person sections of Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler where Calvino straddles the line between apostrophe and second-person narrative.

Functionally, a lot of second-person narrative could be written as first person, but there is a distinction in that in a second-person narrative, there is the closeness of a first-person, but a distinction is made between the narrator and the protagonist and there is the possibility of the narrator knowing things that the protagonist does not.¹ And unlike a close third-person narrative which also has that distinction between narrator and protagonist, there is the narrative attempt to bring the reader into identification with the protagonist.


  1. I took advantage of this in my story, “Thy Neighbour’s Goods” to be able to show actions of the neighbor that the protagonist could not know.
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    None of the examples from wikipedia seem like this. In fact the article says "a speaker breaks off from addressing the audience (e.g., in a play) and directs speech to a third party such as an opposing litigant or some other individual, sometimes absent from the scene." But in my quote the narrator seems to be directly addressing the audience! If not the audience, who is being told to 'focus'? Jul 22, 2022 at 17:07
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    'A true second person voice is one in which the protagonist is “you.”' This is a confusing statement, since "second-person voice" is a grammatical concept rather than a narrative one. And second-person narration doesn't have this requirement.
    – Tsundoku
    Aug 2, 2022 at 15:21

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