Using pronouns in academic writing
Pronouns are words that stand in for nouns. They can refer to specific people and things (e.g. I, you, it, him, their, this) or to non-specific people and things (e.g. anybody, one, some, each).
In academic writing, there are debates around the appropriate use of first-person pronouns (I, we) and gendered pronouns (he, she). Second person pronouns (you, yours) should almost always be avoided.
The antecedent of a pronoun is the noun that it refers back to. The antecedent is usually mentioned in the text before the pronoun, but sometimes it comes just after it in a sentence.
- Annie was late to class again because she missed her bus.
- As they debated the point, the students became increasingly animated.
When you use any type of pronoun, it’s important to ensure that the antecedent is clear and unambiguous. If there is any ambiguity, use the noun instead.
- After the interview and the written test were complete, it was checked for incomplete answers.
Here it is unclear whether it refers to the interview, the test, or both.
- After the interview and the written test were complete, the test was checked for incomplete answers.
Personal pronouns that refer to the author or authors – I, we, my, etc. – are a topic of debate in academic writing. In some scientific disciplines, the first person has traditionally been avoided to maintain an objective, impersonal tone and keep the focus on the material rather than the author.
However, first-person pronouns are increasingly accepted in many types of academic writing (though they are still more prevalent in some fields than others). If in doubt about whether you should use the first person, check with your teacher or supervisor.
Using first-person pronouns in academic writing
Don’t overuse first-person pronouns in academic texts – make sure only to use them when it’s appropriate to do so, as in the following situations.
|Use the first person…||Examples|
|..to organize the text and guide the reader through your argument.|
|..to report methods, procedures, and steps undertaken.|
|..to signal your position in a debate or contrast your claims with another source.|
Note that the plural first-person pronoun we should only be used when referring to several researchers. If you conducted the study or authored the paper alone, use I, not we.
How to avoid first-person pronouns
If you have been told not to use first-person pronouns, there are three approaches you can take.
|First-person sentence||Revision||Revised sentence|
|We interviewed 12 participants.||Use the third person||The researchers interviewed 12 participants.|
|I argue that the theory needs to be refined further.||Use a different subject||This paper argues that the theory needs to be refined further.|
|I checked the dataset for missing data and outliers.||Use the passive voice||The dataset was checked for missing data and outliers.|
Each of these approaches has different advantages and disadvantages. For example, the passive voice can sometimes result in dangling modifiers that make your text less clear. If you are allowed to use first-person pronouns, retaining them is often the best choice.
Addressing the reader directly with the pronoun you is rarely appropriate in academic writing. To avoid it, rephrase or use the impersonal pronoun one.
- In order to become a doctor, you must complete a rigorous education and years of training.
- In order to become a doctor, one must complete a rigorous education and years of training.
- As you can see in Figure 1.2, most respondents chose the second option.
- As can be seen in Figure 1.2, most respondents chose the second option.
Third-person singular pronouns in English are gendered (he/him, she/her), and students are sometimes unsure how to refer to people of unknown or unspecified gender.
In older writing you will often see masculine pronouns (he, him) and nouns (mankind, firemen) used as the universal or neutral. However, this is increasingly considered outdated and biased, so use gender-neutral language wherever possible.
The best solution to avoid gender bias is usually to revise the sentence with a plural subject.
- When a child turns 18, he gains various rights and responsibilities.
- When children turn 18, they gain various rights and responsibilities.
If this is not possible, you have two alternative options. The more traditional approach to is to use he or she.
- When a child turns 18, he or she gains various rights and responsibilities.
However, this often results in awkward or convoluted sentences, and it is not inclusive of all genders. Another option is to use they and their as singular pronouns.
- When a child turns 18, they gain various rights and responsibilities.
They has long been used as a singular pronoun in informal contexts, and is often the preferred pronoun of people who do not identify as either men or women. As long as it is completely clear which noun you are referring to, the singular they is generally acceptable, and is now recommended by some style guides (including the latest edition of APA style).
However, note that some instructors may object to the singular they in formal writing. For this reason, the first approach (pluralizing the subject) is recommended where possible.
Whether or not you use first-person pronouns, it’s important to keep the point of view consistent throughout the text. Make sure not to shift between referring to yourself in the first person (I, we, my, our) and the third person (the author, the researchers).
- The researchers interviewed 12 participants, and our results show that all were in agreement.
- We interviewed 12 participants, and our results show that all were in agreement.
- The researchers interviewed 12 participants, and the results show that all were in agreement.
Demonstratives are words that single something out in a specific context: this, that, these and those.
In academic writing, it’s important to make sure it’s clear what you’re referring to when you use demonstratives. To clarify your meaning when you use words like this, you can add a word or short phrase after the demonstrative.
- The income gap between rich and poor has continued to widen over the past decade, contrary to mainstream economists’ predictions. This indicates that new models are required to understand this.
- The income gap between rich and poor has continued to widen over the past decade, contrary to mainstream economists’ predictions. This disparity between theory and reality indicates that new models are required to understand this trend.