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Writing academically: Personal pronouns

Personal pronouns are used to replace people, places or things to make sentences shorter and clearer. Examples of personal pronouns include: I, we, it, they, you, and she. Your choice of personal pronoun will determine if you are writing in the first person or the third person.


Examples of pronouns

 

First person: I conducted an experiment on seedling growth under various conditions.

Second person: You will see that the results of my experiment provided support for growing seedlings in dark conditions.

Third person: It was found that seedling growth was significantly greater in the dark than in the light.

Which to use?

First (I) or Third (it)

How do you decide whether to write in the first person, the second person, or the third person? In general the approach you choose depends on the nature of the assignment, and on your department:

Nature of the assignment – usually by default you will write an academic assignment in the third person. The main exception to this is when writing reflectively, in which case you are relating your own thoughts and experiences, and first person is more appropriate.

Discipline – most disciplines, particularly the sciences and social sciences require you to write in the third person. Some areas of the humanities require first person, but this may depend on the nature of the assignment. If in doubt refer to your module handbooks and speak to your tutors.

Second (You)

The second person (e.g. “you”) is the least commonly used form in academic writing, and generally addresses the reader or audience directly.

It is considered a bit chatty and as a consequence not normally used in academic writing.

One example of where it may be appropriate to use the second person is in the delivery of presentations where you may wish to address your audience directly.

Language is changing however and so is society.

Many people no longer associate themselves with a specific gender which can cause grammatical issues when referring to them.

They/their as gender neutral single third person pronouns is common in our spoken language and is becoming more acceptable in written language.

As with all things, check with your tutor to see if he/she/they (!) have a personal preference if you are unsure.

We

'We' should only be used if you have co-written a paper. We suggest that... would then be perfectly acceptable. Students often fall into the trap of using 'we' to mean all human kind, or all researchers, or all historians etc.
This should also be avoided as you are making the reader guess who you are referring to.  It is better to use the actual noun rather than the pronoun in this case. Alternatively you can switch to the third person i.e.

Wrong: We have been able to make connections between corvid and ape intelligence. For example...

Better: Some researchers have been able to make connections between corvid and ape intelligence. For example...

Or: It is possible to make connections between corvid and ape intelligence. For example...

They/Their

There is a lot of debate about whether you should be able to use they/their as gender-neutral single third person pronouns as in the following sentences:

Example: Each child was able to make the choice they believed to be correct.

A nurse should be able to make appropriate decisions about the care of their patient.

Strictly speaking, these sentences are grammatically incorrect as they and their are plural pronouns. One way to solve the problem is by switching to the plural noun in the earlier part of the sentence:

Example: Nurses should be able to make appropriate decisions about the care of their patients.

Where this is not appropriate you could use the more correct his/her or he/she (or even (s)he) which also avoids the problem:

Example: Each child was able to make the choice (s)he believed to be correct.