Writing tip: Using first person pronouns
Would it surprise you to know that the APA Style rules encourage authors to use first person pronouns (e.g., I, me, we), versus the third person perspective? According to Tim McAdoo (2009), who posted on the topic in the APA Style Blog, “I or we is perfectly acceptable in APA Style! In fact, the Publication Manual actually recommends using first person, when appropriate, to avoid ambiguity” (para. 1). Using the third person can create problems for readers when an author uses vague descriptions in an attempt to maintain the objective perspective. The American Psychological Association (2010) noted three types of attribution that can be misleading: “third person, anthropomorphism, and use of the editorial we” (p. 69), all of which can be avoided by using the first person.
Third person maintains an objective, unbiased perspective on the description. For example, in the third person, an author refers to himself or herself as “the author” or “the researcher”, versus using the first person I. While an objective perspective may be required in some types of writing, as a general rule, use first person pronouns when you’re describing your own actions or experiences, e.g., “based on my professional experiences, I chose to…”. Without the first person pronoun, it may not be clear who you’re referring to or what your role was. For example, compare “the researcher randomly selected 10 participants and interviewed them” to “I randomly selected 10 participants and interviewed them”. In the latter sentence, I identifies the author as the researcher. Similarly, consider the difference between “the researcher randomly selected 10 participants and interviewed them” and “the researcher randomly selected 10 participants and interviewed us”. The second sentence indicates that the author of the work was a participant in the research study.
Anthropomorphism involves “attribut[ing] human characteristics to animals or to inanimate sources” (American Psychological Association, 2010, p. 69). For example, “this essay will discuss sources of inter-organizational conflict” anthropomorphizes the essay, which can’t discuss anything as it isn’t alive. The author, however, can discuss the topic within the essay. Unless directed otherwise by an instructor or supervisor, students can claim their actions in their essays, such as, “in this essay, I will discuss sources of inter-organizational conflict ”. In a team assignment, rather than “this essay will recommend strategies for improved sustainability practices”, use “we” to claim the action: “we will provide our recommendations for improved sustainability practices”.
The editorial we can be a problem when it’s unclear to whom we refers. It’s fine to use we when referring to a specific group to which you belong (e.g., as a teammate or a co-author: “we completed our research”), but when we is used more broadly to refer to an unspecific group, the pronoun is less clear. For example, in “we need to consider the implications of generational differences within workplaces”, it’s unclear who “we” is. If “we” is an organization and the author is an employee of that organization, it would be more accurate to say “my organization needs to consider the implications of generational differences within workplaces”. Using the same example, “we” could equally refer to a more specific group, such as managers, in which case it would be clearer to identify the specific group: “managers need to consider the implications of generational differences within workplaces”. Here’s another example: “we know it’s important to take action to protect the environment”. Who is “we”? Are they environmentalists, scientists, politicians, Canadians, or some other group? Is the author of the document a member of the group(s)? Replacing “we” with a more specific description makes it easier for the reader to understand the sentence: “all the members of my organization know it’s important to protect the environment”. Equally, the author could put himself or herself in the sentence: “along with other members of my organization, I know it’s important to take action to protect the environment”.
Moving from the first to the third person
If your instructor or reviewer has directed you to use an objective perspective in your work, consider if you’ve used statements such as “I think” or “it’s my belief that” in your text. While it makes sense to use the first person when describing your actions or experiences, it isn’t necessary to preface your thoughts with “I think” because you’re the author of the text, so it’s understood that your text represents your thinking. If you’ve used “I think”, try rewriting the sentence to remove the first person pronoun(s). For example, “I think Canadians talk a lot about the weather" becomes "Canadians talk a lot about the weather".
Consider your audience
Finally, as McAdoo (2009) noted,
Just one caveat: As always, if you are writing a paper, thesis, or dissertation, your institution may have its own guidelines for the use of first person. The acceptability of first person is sometimes a hot topic, and guidelines vary from one institution to another. Dissertation committees sometimes advise students to follow APA Style with a list of school-specific exceptions, and the acceptability of first person may be one of these. Likewise, if you are submitting a manuscript for publication, you should always check the publisher’s guidelines. (para. 4)
In other words, if you’re not sure if using the first person is acceptable in your work, please check with your instructor, advisor, or journal editor.
Do you have questions about this tip or any other writing matter? Please contact the Writing Centre as we (that is, Jamaal Cox and I) would be pleased to assist you.
Writing centre coordinator
American Psychological Association. (2010). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
McAdoo, T. (2009). Use of first person in APA Style [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://blog.apastyle.org/apastyle/2009/09/use-of-first-person-in-apa-style.html