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, ithimtheir, 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.

Pronoun antecedents

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.

First-person pronouns

Personal pronouns that refer to the author or authors – I, we, my, etc. – are a topic of debate in academic writing. Particularly in 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 commonly used in some fields than in others. If in doubt, check with your teacher or supervisor to see if you have to follow specific guidelines.

If you do have to avoid first-person pronouns, there are three main approaches you can take.

First-person sentenceRevisionRevised sentence
We interviewed 12 participants.Use the third personThe researchers interviewed 12 participants.
I argue that the theory needs to be refined further.Use a different subjectThis paper argues that the theory needs to be refined further.
I checked the dataset for missing data and outliers.Use the passive voiceThe 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.

There are some types of academic writing where first-person pronouns are always acceptable – for instance, in application documents such as a personal statement or statement of purpose.

Receive feedback on language, structure and layout

Professional editors proofread and edit your paper by focusing on:

  • Academic style
  • Vague sentences
  • Grammar
  • Style consistency

See an example

Second-person pronouns

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 pronouns

Third-person singular pronouns in English are gendered (he/himshe/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 this 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 should generally be considered acceptable.

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 wherever possible.

Pronoun consistency

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.

Demonstrative pronouns

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.
Is this article helpful?
Shona McCombes

Shona has a bachelor's and two master's degrees, so she's an expert at writing a great thesis. She has also worked as an editor and teacher, working with students at all different levels to improve their academic writing.

Comment or ask a question.