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, first-person pronouns (I, we) may be used depending on your field. Second person pronouns (you, yours) should almost always be avoided. Third person pronouns (heshethey) should be used in a way that avoids gender bias.

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 (I, we)

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 standard in many types of academic writing (though they are still more prevalent in some fields than others). Some style guides, such as APA, require the use of first person pronouns when referring to your own actions and opinions.

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.

Note that the plural we/our should only be used if you are writing with coauthors. If you are writing the paper alone, use the singular I/my.

Use the first person… Examples
..to organize the text and guide the reader through your argument.
  • In this paper, I will argue that…
  • First, I outline the development of…
  • We conclude that…
..to report methods, procedures, and steps undertaken.
  • We analyzed…
  • I interviewed…
..to signal your position in a debate or contrast your claims with another source.
  • Contrary to this theory, our findings suggest that…
  • However, I contend that…

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. Therefore, if you are allowed to use first-person pronouns, retaining them is the best choice.

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

Avoid the editorial we

Don’t use the first person plural to refer to people in general. This is sometimes called the “editorial we,” as it is commonly used in newspaper editorials to speak on behalf of the publication, or to express a widely shared opinion or experience.

However, in academic writing, it’s important to be precise about who you are referring to and to avoid broad generalizations. If possible, specify exactly which group of people you are talking about.

  • When we are given more freedom, we can work more effectively.
  • When employees are given more freedom, they can work more effectively.
  • As we age, we tend to become less concerned with others’ opinions of us.
  • As people age, they tend to become less concerned with others’ opinions of them.

Using we in this way is acceptable if you want to emphasize the shared experiences of a particular group to which you belong. Just make sure it is clear exactly who you are referring to.

  • It is important to be aware of our own biases.
  • It is important for educators to be aware of our own biases.

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Second-person pronouns (you)

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 (he, she, they)

Third-person singular pronouns in English are traditionally gendered (he/himshe/her), but gender-neutral language is considered increasingly important by many universities, publications, and style guides.

In older writing, you will often see masculine pronouns (he, him) and nouns (mankind, firemen) used as the universal or neutral. This is now considered outdated and biased.

Some writers combine masculine and feminine pronouns in constructions such as he or she; however, this often results in awkward or convoluted sentences, and it is not inclusive of all genders.

To refer to people of unknown or unspecified gender, the pronouns they/them/their are generally the most appropriate choice. They has long been used as a singular pronoun in informal contexts, and a growing number of style guides (including APA and MLA) now endorse this usage in academic writing.

As an alternative to the singular they, you can often simply pluralize the subject of the sentence, or revise the sentence structure so that no pronoun is necessary.

  • When a child turns 18, he gains various rights and responsibilities.
  • When a child turns 18, they gain various rights and responsibilities.
  • When children turn 18, they gain various rights and responsibilities.
  • Children gain various rights and responsibilities at the age of 18.
  • Each examiner submitted his assessment of the project.
  • Each examiner submitted their assessment of the project.
  • The examiners submitted their assessments of the project.
  • The examiners’ assessments of the project were submitted.

As with all pronouns, when using the singular they, make sure it is clear who you are referring to. If the pronoun could result in confusion, rephrase your sentence to name the subject directly, or revise the sentence structure to clarify.

In the first sentence below, it is unclear if they refers to the teacher, the student, or both. In the revised version, the subject is named directly, and it is clear from context that their work also refers to the student.

  • If the teacher is not impressed with the student’s work, they will be disappointed.
  • The student will be disappointed if the teacher is not impressed with their work.

When referring to a specific individual, you should always use that person’s self-identified pronouns. In the example below, different possessive pronouns are used for each of the individuals mentioned (she, they, and he, respectively).

  • Some participants described relationships with pets: Breanna talked about her dog, Andy talked about their cat, and Philip talked about his iguana.

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 (thisthatthesethose)

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.
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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.

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