Avoiding personal pronouns:
Students are often advised not to use the first or second person pronouns in their academic writing (I, we, you). This is not an absolute rule - you will sometimes see it in the writing of published scholars. However, supervisors have different preferences on this matter and if you use the first or second person, do so sparingly and with caution. The reader's attention should not primarily be drawn to you or to themselves, but to your argument. However, using 'I' may on occasion be a very effective way of distinguishing your own view from that of other writers which you have referred to or quoted. Moreover, the strategies suggested below can begin to sound clumsy, in which case it may be clearer and better to write 'I'. You must weigh up the potential benefits of using or avoiding the first person.
Points to bear in mind:
- If you intrude yourself into the text too much, it may detract from the focus on your argument and the impression of objectivity you are trying to create, by putting the focus on you personally.
- It may also lead you to offer opinions without the supporting reasoning and evidence that make up a scholarly argument, as phrases such as I think may be shortcuts to avoid clarifying a train of reasoning.
- If you explicitly address your reader (either as you or we), it may be distracting for them, or it may also be an emotive rhetorical strategy, relying on the assumption of a common agreement which has yet to be reached through reasoning and evidence. As we can see... You can see that...
If you want to avoid using these pronouns or reduce the amount you use, you might try the following strategies:
Using the passive over the active voice.
The active voice emphasizes who is the agent of a particular action. It is a more common issue in experimental subjects such as the Sciences in which the researcher performs concrete actions as part of experiments (for example, "I heated the compound and took a reading" (the passive formulation would be "the compound was heated and a reading was taken"). However, it is still present in non-experimental subjects such as English in which the researcher performs more abstract actions such as arguing or drawing conclusions. It is commonly used in the third person in English, to discuss the work of other scholars, but can be used to stress your own contribution over that of other writers:
- Smith claims that... but I argue that...
The passive voice emphasizes the action rather than the person performing it. It is one way to avoid stating the agent (ie yourself, if you wish to use a more impersonal style).
- It is argued that...
The passive voice is best used sparingly, however. It can be less concise than the active voice, and may lead to generalisations such as 'it has been argued...' where your reader may wish this to be substantiated, to know who has argued this, with a reference. Overuse of the passive may also sound unnatural, be less concise, and give a less assertive impression to your arguments or result in them being indistinguishable from those of other scholars, especially if it is combined with 'hedging' language:
- it could be argued that...
Using nouns instead of verbs can also be an alternative to using the first or second person pronoun. For example,
- The argument that...