Research writers frequently wonder whether the first person can be used in academic and scientific writing. In truth, for generations, we’ve been discouraged from using “I” and “we” in academic writing simply due to old habits. That’s right—there’s no reason why you can’t use these words! In fact, the academic community used first-person pronouns until the 1920s, when the third person and passive-voice constructions (that is, “boring” writing) were adopted. Recently, however, we’ve shifted back to producing active and engaging prose that incorporates the first person.
However, the use of “I” and “we” still has some generally accepted rules we ought to follow. For example, the first person is more likely used in the abstract, introduction, discussion, and conclusion sections of an academic paper while the third person and passive constructions are found in the methods and results sections.
In this article, we discuss when you should avoid personal pronouns and when they may enhance your writing.
It’s Okay to Use First-Person Pronouns to:
- clarify meaning by eliminating passive voice constructions;
- establish authority and credibility (e.g. assert ethos, the Aristotelian rhetorical term referring to the personal character);
- express interest in a subject matter (typically found in rapid correspondence);
- establish personal connections with readers, particularly regarding anecdotal or hypothetical situations (common in philosophy, religion and similar fields, particularly to explore how certain concepts might impact personal life. Additionally, artistic disciplines may also encourage personal perspectives more than other subjects);
- to emphasize or distinguish your perspective while discussing existing literature; and
- to create a conversational tone (rare in academic writing).
The First Person Should Be Avoided When:
- doing so would remove objectivity and give the impression that results or observations are unique to your perspective;
- you wish to maintain an objective tone that would suggest your study minimized biases as best as possible; and
- expressing your thoughts generally (phrases like “I think” are unnecessary because any statement that isn’t cited should be yours).
The following examples compare the impact of using and avoiding first-person pronouns.
Example 1 (First Person Preferred):
To understand the effects of global warming on coastal regions, changes in sea levels, storm surge occurrences and precipitation amounts were examined.
[Note: When a long phrase acts as the subject of a passive-voice construction, the sentence becomes difficult to digest. Additionally, since the author(s) conducted the research, it would be clearer to specifically mention them when discussing the focus of a project.]
We examined changes in sea levels, storm surge occurrences, and precipitation amounts to understand how global warming impacts coastal regions.
[Note: When describing the focus of a research project, many authors often replace "we" with phrases such as "this study" or "this paper." "We," however, is acceptable in this context, including for scientific disciplines. In fact, recent papers published in Nature, for example, use "we" to establish an active voice. Be careful when using "this study" or "this paper" with verbs that clearly couldn't have performed the action. For example, "we attempt to demonstrate" works, but "the study attempts to demonstrate" does not; the study is not a person.]
Example 2 (First Person Discouraged):
From the various data points we have received, we observed that higher frequencies of runoffs from heavy rainfall have occurred in coastal regions where temperatures have increased by at least 0.9°C.
[Note: Introducing personal pronouns when discussing results raises questions regarding the reproducibility of a study. However, mathematics fields generally tolerate phrases such as "in X example, we see..."]
Coastal regions with temperature increases averaging more than 0.9°C experienced higher frequencies of runoffs from heavy rainfall.
[Note: We removed the passive voice and maintained objectivity and assertiveness by specifically identifying the cause-and-effect elements as the actor and recipient of the main action verb. Additionally, in this version, the results appear independent of any person's perspective.]
Example 3 (First Person Preferred):
In contrast to the study by Jones et al. (2001), which suggests that milk consumption is safe for adults, the Miller study (2005) revealed the potential hazards of ingesting milk. The authors confirm this latter finding.
[Note: "Authors" in the last sentence above is unclear. Does the term refer to Jones et al., Miller, or the authors of the current paper?]
In contrast to the study by Jones et al. (2001), which suggests that milk consumption is safe for adults, the Miller study (2005) revealed the potential hazards of ingesting milk. We confirm this latter finding.
[Note: By using "we," this sentence clarifies the actor and emphasizes the significance of the recent findings reported in this paper. Indeed, "I" and "we" are acceptable in most scientific fields to compare an author's works with other researchers' publications. The APA encourages using personal pronouns for this context. The social sciences broaden this scope to allow discussion of personal perspectives, irrespective of comparisons to other literature.]
Other Tips about Using Personal Pronouns
- Avoid starting a sentence with personal pronouns. The beginning of a sentence is a noticeable position that draws readers’ attention. Thus, using personal pronouns as the first one or two words of a sentence will draw unnecessary attention to them (unless, of course, that was your intent).
- Be careful how you define “we.” It should only refer to the authors and never the audience unless your intention is to write a conversational piece rather than a scholarly document! After all, the readers were not involved in analyzing or formulating the conclusions presented in your paper (although, we note that the point of your paper is to persuade readers to reach the same conclusions you did). While this is not a hard-and-fast rule, if you do want to use “we” to refer to a larger class of people, clearly define the term “we” in the sentence. For example, “As researchers, we frequently question…”
- The first person is becoming more acceptable under Modern English usage standards; however, the second-person pronoun “you” is still generally unacceptable because it is too casual for academic writing.
- Take all of the above notes with a grain of salt. That is, double-check your journal or institution’s author guidelines. Some organizations may prohibit the use of personal pronouns.
- As an extra tip, before submission, you should always read through the most recent issues of a journal to get a better sense of the editors’ preferred writing styles and conventions.
Many times, high school students are told not to use first person (“I,” “we,” “my,” “us,” and so forth) in their essays. As a college student, you should realize that this is a rule that can and should be broken—at the right time, of course.
By now, you’ve probably written a personal essay, memoir, or narrative that used first person. After all, how could you write a personal essay about yourself, for instance, without using the dreaded “I” word?
However, academic essays differ from personal essays; they are typically researched and use a formal tone. Because of these differences, when students write an academic essay, they quickly shy away from first person because of what they have been told in high school or because they believe that first person feels too informal for an intellectual, researched text. Yet while first person can definitely be overused in academic essays (which is likely why your teachers tell you not to use it), there are moments in a paper when it is not only appropriate, but it is actually effective and/or persuasive to use first person. The following are a few instances in which it is appropriate to use first person in an academic essay:
- Including a personal anecdote: You have more than likely been told that you need a strong “hook” to draw your readers in during an introduction. Sometimes, the best hook is a personal anecdote, or a short amusing story about yourself. In this situation, it would seem unnatural not to use first-person pronouns such as “I” and “myself.” Your readers will appreciate the personal touch and will want to keep reading! (For more information about incorporating personal anecdotes into your writing, see "Employing Narrative in an Essay.")
- Establishing your credibility (ethos): Ethos is a term stemming back to Ancient Greece that essentially means “character” in the sense of trustworthiness or credibility. A writer can establish her ethos by convincing the reader that she is trustworthy source. Oftentimes, the best way to do that is to get personal—tell the reader a little bit about yourself. (For more information about ethos, see "Ethos.")
For instance, let’s say you are writing an essay arguing that dance is a sport. Using the occasional personal pronoun to let your audience know that you, in fact, are a classically trained dancer—and have the muscles and scars to prove it—goes a long way in establishing your credibility and proving your argument. And this use of first person will not distract or annoy your readers because it is purposeful.
- Clarifying passive constructions: Often, when writers try to avoid using first person in essays, they end up creating confusing, passive sentences.
For instance, let’s say I am writing an essay about different word processing technologies, and I want to make the point that I am using Microsoft Word to write this essay. If I tried to avoid first-person pronouns, my sentence might read: “Right now, this essay is being written in Microsoft Word.” While this sentence is not wrong, it is what we call passive—the subject of the sentence is being acted upon because there is no one performing the action. To most people, this sentence sounds better: “Right now, I am writing this essay in Microsoft Word.” Do you see the difference? In this case, using first person makes your writing clearer.
- Stating your position in relation to others: Sometimes, especially in an argumentative essay, it is necessary to state your opinion on the topic. Readers want to know where you stand, and it is sometimes helpful to assert yourself by putting your own opinions into the essay. You can imagine the passive sentences (see above) that might occur if you try to state your argument without using the word “I.” The key here is to use first person sparingly. Use personal pronouns enough to get your point across clearly without inundating your readers with this language.
Now, the above list is certainly not exhaustive. The best thing to do is to use your good judgment, and you can always check with your instructor if you are unsure of his or her perspective on the issue. Ultimately, if you feel that using first person has a purpose or will have a strategic effect on your audience, then it is probably fine to use first-person pronouns. Just be sure not to overuse this language, at the risk of sounding narcissistic, self-centered, or unaware of others’ opinions on a topic.
The First Person
Use the First Person