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Should You Avoid Using the First Person in Academic Writing? (If so, how?)

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Can you use a first-person point of view (I, me, my, mine) in any kind of writing? Well, if you are the writer, you can do anything you want. However, we should write with our readers in mind, and they have certain expectations.

In this lesson, you will learn (a) about the first, second, and third person point of view and (b) how to avoid using the first person in academic writing.

First Person Point of View (It’s about Me or Us)

First person point of view refers to I, me, my, mine, and myself (first person singular) or we, us, our, ours, and ourselves (first person plural).

When writers tell a story or share a personal experience, they use the first person. It is often used in fiction or whenever the writer is the focal point.

Using the first person makes the narrative very personal to the author. For example,

I applied for a research grant twice, but I never received any replies. My research depends on external funding. I am concerned that I may have to delay my research.

Second Person Point of View (It’s about You)

Second person point of view refers to you, your, and yours (second person singular or plural). It is used in letters, speeches, and short stories, for example, or whenever it makes sense for the writer to address the reader or readers directly. For example,

When you learn a new language, you should keep in mind that you will spend much of your time reading your textbook, watching videos, listening to lessons, and so on. You can make it a chore and feel discouraged, or you can learn to enjoy yourself.

Third Person Point of View (It’s about It or Them)

Third person point of view refers to he, she, it, him, her, his, her, its, himself, herself, and itself (singular) or they, them, theirs, and themselves (plural). It is used in all types of rhetorical modes when you speaks about something or someone other than the reader or yourself. By using the third person, the writer focuses on the topic or the idea in an essay or on the charaters in a story. For example,

Participants in the study were college students. They received credit for their participation in the study. One of the participants was excluded from the study because she could not understand the investigators’ instructions in English very well.

Why Should You Avoid The First or Second Person in Academic Writing?

Academic writing should have a formal, objective tone. Rather than focusing on yourself, the writer, or focusing on your readers, you should focus on discussing or arguing the topic and your ideas.

Compare the following academic reports. The first uses the first person point of view. The other uses the more objective third person.

Using the first person (focus on the researcher):

The results of my research showed a difference between the number of questions male and female participants used. I found that female participants asked 35% of the questions compared to male participants’ 11% of the questions. I propose that social roles and expectations can explain the gender difference in my results.

Using the third person (focus on the research):

Research results showed a difference in the number of questions male and female participants used. Female participants asked 35% of the questions compared to 11% of the questions for male participants. Such a difference can be explained by social roles and expectations.

Examples of Ways to Avoid the First Person in Academic Writing

Below are some possible ways to avoid using the first person in academic writing so that the focus changes from the writer to the topic or idea at hand.

First person (focus on writer):

In this essay, I will present three main reasons that support my belief that community colleges should be free.

Third person (focus on topic):

Community colleges should be free for several reasons.

First person (focus on writer):

I found the story to be very patronizing to women.

Third person (focus on topic):

The story was very patronizing to women.

The story seems to be very patronizing to women.

First person (focus on writer):

When I watched the video, my impression was that the presenter was insecure.

Third person (focus on topic):

The presenter in the video appeared insecure.

First person (focus on writer):

In my opinion, the president should address this issue before it becomes a serious problem.

Third person (focus on topic):

The president should address this issue before it becomes a problem.

First person (focus on writer):

Results the poll that I created showed that my students were satisfied with my course design.

Third person (focus on topic):

Poll results showed that students were satisfied with the course design.

First person (focus on writer):

My analysis of this novel is that the author wants to address sexism in politics.

Third person (focus on topic):

The author of the novel addresses sexism in politics.

Examples of Ways to Avoid the Second in Academic Writing

Avoiding the third person is not always straightforward. Sometimes you may need to put some thought into it and move parts of the sentence around. Below are some possible ways to avoid using the second person in academic writing to address the topic rather than the reader.

Second person (focus on the reader):

(to the readers)

You can find more information on this topic in “Rebel with a Clause” by Ellen Jovin.

Third person (focus on topic):

You can find more information on this topic in “Rebel with a Clause” by Ellen Jovin.

“Rebel with a Clause” by Ellen Jovin has more information on this topic.

Second person (focus on the reader):

(to voters)

You should always learn about your candidates before casting your ballots.

Third person (focus on topic):

Voters should always learn about their candidates before casting their ballots.

Second person (focus on the reader):

(to attendees)

It is recommended you should bring your own food and beverages to the workshops.

Third person (focus on topic):

Workshop attendees should bring their own food and beverages.

Bringing food and beverages to the workshops is recommended.

Second person (focus on the reader):

(to students)

For this assignment, you must write at least three body paragraphs.

Third person (focus on topic):

This assignment requires at least three body paragraphs.

Second person (focus on the reader):

(to people in general)

When you have the flu, you can protect others around you by wearing a face mask.

Third person (focus on topic):

When people have the flu, they can protect others around them by wearing a face mask.

Second person (focus on the reader):

(to no one in particular)

After watching this video, you will understand the difference between A and B.

Third person (focus on topic):

This video shows the difference between A and B.

The So-Called “Unnecessary You” Exception

When using commands (the imperative form of the verb), you are in effect addressing the reader. Yet, avoiding the second person is problematic. For example, you will often see “See Table X” or “Compare the differences shown in Figure X.”

The so-called unnecessary “you” is often used to with “you should” or “you must,” where a direct command hiding the “you” is enough, albeit very direct. For example:

Example 1

  • You should plan your essay before you start writing.
  • Plan your essay before you start writing.

Example 2

  • You must turn in your assignments on Tuesday, please.
  • Please turn in your assignments on Tuesday.

“One” or “People” Replacing “Your” or “We”

“One” as well as “someone,” “everyone,” and “anyone” can be used to replace the second person pronoun “you,” particularly when it refers to people in general. Similarly, you could use “people” or “the individual,” which makes the sentence less formal.

Example 1

Second person point of view

Sometimes you must put yourself first and take care of your needs.

Third person point of view

  • Sometimes people must put themselves first and take care of their needs.
  • Sometimes individuals must put themselves first and take care of their needs.
  • Sometimes one must put oneself first and take care of one’s needs.

Notes

  1. Note that the changed sentences above become increasingly formal.

Example 2

First person point of view

We must pass legislation to control environmental pollution.

Third person point of view

  • One must pass legislation to control environmental pollution.
  • Someone must pass legislation to control environmental pollution.
  • People must pass legislation to control environmental pollution.

Using a more specific third-person agent

  • Legislators must pass legislation to control environmental pollution.
  • The federal government must pass legislation to control environmental pollution.
  • Congress must pass legislation to control environmental pollution

Note

By using the “one,” “someone,” or “people” in the above sentences, the writer appears to be (perhaps willfully, perhaps diplomatically) avoiding holding anyone direct responsibility. In contrast, the last three statements name the responsible parties explicitly.

Do Not Be Afraid to Revise On the Fly

Writing is a dynamic process. When I write (if I may use first person point of view here), I often find myself writing and rewriting a sentence several times before moving on to the next sentence. Once a draft is completed, I revise it several times, rewriting a sentence until I find what I consider the best way to express an idea to my reader.

When writing an academic essay, paper, or report, do not feel that you must commit to “fixing” a particular iteration of a sentence you just wrote. Sometimes, it is best to delete it just start over.

Example 1

Let’s say you are using the third person and you notice the first iteration of a sentence uses the second person as in the example below:

You absolutely must start treatment early if you want to see the best possible outcomes.

After a few failed attempts to reword it to use the third person, you might want to simply start over and come up with

  • For the best possible outcomes, it is important to start treatment early.
  • Starting treatment early is important to yield the best possible outcomes.
  • Crucially, the best possible outcomes result from starting treatment early.
  • An early start is vital for the best possible treatment outcomes.

Note that each revision focuses on different aspects of the treatment (i.e., the outcomes, the course of action, the importance of an early start). It is up to you, the writer, to select the sentence that best expresses the intended message.

Word of Caution for All Types of Writing

When it comes to writing and grammar, statements such as “Never use the first person in formal writing,” or “Never use the passive voice unless ‘strictly’ necessary,” or even “Do not split infinitives” are very problematic. Even in academic writing, sometimes you cannot escape using something other than the third person. For example, academic writers frequently tell the reader directly what to do as in “Refer to Table 1.”

Moreover, sometimes not breaking some obscure, prescriptive rule results in awkward, stilted sentences. The fix can be worse than the purported problem.

What is the rule, then? Can you never use a first person point of view in formal writing (especially in academic writing)? What if you are writing about a personal experience?

It’s about your readers, not about you. If your writing is academic, your readers expect you to be objective and impartial. In contrast, your readers expect you to be subjective and engaged with your own story if you are writing about a personal experience. In this situation, attempting to use the third person will prove extremely difficult; it would very likely produce odd results.

For example, it sounds natural for a research scientist to write objectively about a study she conducted:

The experimenter asked participants to complete a questionnaire.

In contrast, it would likely come across as bizarre to the reader if a journalist reported objectively her subjective, personal experience in her article:

The author of the present article experienced this issue firsthand when she worked for a large company after she finished college.

It would appear to the reader as if writer were trying to distance herself from the narrative by being overly formal, clinical even, rather than connecting with her own story.

The bottom line: Be judicious. Use the point of view that is appropriate for the type of writing and that helps the reader understand the message without unnecessary distractions.

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