X-Person Phrases

Writers in the field often find it necessary to refer to the grammatical form of a given verb, which frequently involves identifying the person (first, second, or third) of the form in question. Without pretending to offer a full discussion of all the ways that authors might present such information, this post offers SBL Press guidelines for the “X-person” phrases when an author chooses to write out those terms.

Before we discuss X-person phrases on their own, it is important to reiterate the general principle that compound adjectives are generally hyphenated when they precede a noun:

twentieth-century literature

first-person narrative

first-person form

This principle holds even when an author writing about a grammatical form omits the noun, as in the following example:

The first-person singular is common.

Although authors often treat this compound (and complex; more on that below) adjective as a de facto noun, it is, in fact, an adjective modifying an understood noun such as form. If one were to diagram the sentence, the phrase first-person singular would not be in the subject position; an unstated X would be, and it would be modified by two adjective lines: first-person and singular.

In short, omitting the noun does not change the fact that first-person still is a compound adjective phrase preceding an (understood) noun and thus should be hyphenated.

Some will wonder, presumably, why there is no hyphen between person and singular. As noted in the comment above on the sentence diagram, the unstated noun in this sentence is modified by two adjective lines: first-person and singular. This makes the construction not only compound (first-person) but also complex (consisting of more than one adjective), and only the compound element is hyphenated, not the entire complex adjectival construction.

One need not use a comma to separate the different adjectival elements in this sort of construction, but the hyphen really is necessary whether the entire phrase is merely compound or compound-complex.

The first-person is common in prophetic speech.

Paul’s use of a second-person singular verb is noteworthy.


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