Quick guide to the use of personal pronouns in academic work

Date published by Date updated: March 27, 2017

Guidelines for the use personal pronouns (“I”, “we”, “my,”and so forth) in academic writing vary according to discipline, and there are intra-disciplinary differences as well.  Experts are divided on the subject of personal pronoun use in scientific writing, which used to avoid personal pronouns in most cases.

Although the matter is by no means settled, many writing experts over the past thirty years have advised the use of personal pronouns even in the sciences.


This lack of a standard for pronoun use puts editors in a tough position when they approach a text.  Which disciplines accept personal pronoun use and to what extent?  What purposes can personal pronouns acceptably serve?

This quick guide has been prepared with these questions in mind by looking into academic articles on the subject of personal pronoun use across academic disciplines (see bib. for sources).  It should serve as rough and ready advice for thinking about acceptable pronoun use when editing texts.

It takes a look at the general uses of personal pronouns, turns to disciplinary differences, and with these things in mind examines some ways of informing editorial decisions that concern personal pronouns.

Uses of Personal Pronouns

Personal pronouns have many acceptable uses across disciplines.  They are often used to establish an appropriate tone, to flag the organization of a document, to distinguish the author’s work, and to explain claims and methods.  In published academic research articles from a wide array of disciplines, personal pronouns appear in the following capacities:

Conveying appropriate tone

  • to help flag claims that the writer feels the community may not be prepared to accept (“I believe that…”)
  • to hedge (“I suspect that…”)
  • to establish intimacy with readers of a difficult text in order to present the author as helpful and to dispose readers to continue reading
  • “I”to establish teacher-novice relationship;“we”to establish a more level playing field
  • to foreground the author as an expert in the field
  • to avoid the implicit assumption that readers will agree with an argument (“It is my contention that…”)

Organizing text

  • to organize the text and guide the reader through the argument (“First I will…”)
  • to outline procedure and methodology (“We first tested for…”)

Juxtaposing with other sources

  • to identify the author’s work as opposed to the work of others (“While Prof. X studied y, we will look into…”)—i.e. to establish that the author’s work is unique
  • to explain the researcher’s previous work (“Building on my previous work [self-citation], this study…”)
  • to dispute other researchers’findings  (“Our own work suggests that previous studies in this field have missed…”)

Explaining claims and actions

  • to flag personal opinions and knowledge claims (“On the basis of my data I would claim…”)
  • to recount experimental procedure and methodology (“We interviewed 60 subjects over the space of several months…”)

Lingering Controversy and Hard/Soft Fields

Nevertheless, personal pronouns remain a controversial issue in some disciplines, and the frequency at which personal pronouns appear varies.  A distinction between “hard” and “soft” fields is useful here (though it is not an absolute distinction).  Roughly speaking, hard fields are the sciences and soft fields are the humanities and social sciences.

Personal pronouns have traditionally been avoided in the hard fields, and they appear more frequently in the soft.

Researchers have commented that hard fields avoid use of personal pronouns to:

  • maintain an objective tone (e.g. the sense that anyone should be able to reproduce an experiment and get the same results);
  • keep focus on the material rather than the author (i.e. to keep priorities straight);
  • keep a distance between the author and the findings (since if the findings are eventually overturned, distance is beneficial for the author).

Scientific writers often avoid personal pronouns by using passive voice, dummy “it”subjects (e.g. “It was found that…”), or using something else as the subject of the sentence (e.g. “We show that”becomes “This study shows that…”).

On the other hand, the trend towards more pronoun use in the sciences seems to be driven by a couple of factors.  First, many writing experts have become conscious of the overuse of passive voice, since it is prone to ambiguity.

Crossing the use of passive voice off the list of acceptable alternatives, these writers advise that personal pronouns force us to clarify who does what in sentences, ruling out possible ambiguities.  In fact, all three of the above strategies in scientific writing tend to more complex (and less clear) syntax where simpler (and clearer) syntax would be possible with the use of a personal pronoun.

Second, researchers have suggested that increasing competition in academics has made it rhetorically attractive to self-promote by using personal pronouns.

Editor’s Guidelines for Use

So, personal pronouns can now be found in published academic work across both hard and soft fields.  However, their use still varies from discipline to discipline.  Collaborative disciplines will prefer “we,”for example, while more individualistic disciplines will prefer “I.”

The material that a discipline is concerned with will dictate the frequency of personal pronoun use, and preferences for personal pronouns seem to vary depending on the writer’s native tongue as well (English tends to “I,”Norwegian to “we,”and French to avoid personal pronouns).

The following are some notes to help decide whether pronouns should stay or go in a given piece of writing.

Disciplinary Distinctions

In general, the distinction between hard and soft disciplines is useful in thinking about how much personal pronoun use is acceptable.  Even if it is no longer taboo to use personal pronouns in hard fields, they will tend to use less than soft fields.  Here is a table that presents the hard/soft distinction on a spectrum.

personal-pronouns-per-field

Personal pronouns per field (taken fom Hayland)

The fields of medicine, biology, and mechanical engineering tend to avoid personal pronouns, while sociology, philosophy, and literary studies tend to use them more frequently.

While we can’t say that medicine will never us personal pronouns, we can say that something is amiss if there are many and no good reason for them is apparent. As another consideration, texts that wind their way through difficult theoretical material tend to use more personal pronouns (e.g. mathematics).

Content and Context

Where authors are engaged in summarizing and disagreeing with the views of others, the personal pronoun is important to help readers distinguish between different lines of argument and identify to whom each belongs.

This means that the more references there are to other authors and their ideas, the more personal pronouns can be acceptably used to distinguish the author’s voice and ideas.

Additionally, certain sections of papers tend to use personal pronouns more frequently and for different purposes. In the introduction, personal pronouns are commonly used to identify the author’s project and its structure.

The methods section of a paper may use personal pronouns to describe an experiment, and the findings section may use personal pronouns in a similar fashion. The discussion and conclusion may need to contrast the author’s work with the work of others.

Things to Keep in Mind

The following are a set of general rules to think about when working with pronouns.

  • The focus should be on the subject of the work rather than the identity of the author, and personal pronouns can get in the way here. In other words, pronouns can be used to excess even in the disciplines that most often use personal pronouns.
  • Interrogate each use of a personal pronoun to see if it has a function. Many have commented that the phrase “I think,”for example, is redundant, since any author is obviously sharing her thoughts with readers. That said,“I think”can sometimes help hedge a claim or distinguish the author’s thoughts from the thoughts of others. Check uses of pronouns against the list given above if in doubt. If the pronoun serves no clear purpose, it should be revised.
  • Notice that hard fields still tend to use personal pronouns less than soft fields. The appropriate amount of personal pronoun use in a philosophy text will not necessarily be appropriate for a medical text.  It is useful to think of the motivation that has driven scientific texts to become more accepting of personal pronouns—does the personal pronoun help express the thought as simply and clearly as possible?  If so, perhaps it should stay, so long as it has not been overused in the surrounding text.
  • When inserting or changing a personal pronoun to try to clarify a sentence, consider whether you can be sure which pronoun is needed.  In the sentence “tests were done to ascertain x,”for example, it may be unclear whether the author is referring to her own work or to the work of other researchers—i.e. the revision may require “Researchers have tested for x” or “We have tested for x.”
  • When implementing revisions or adding pronouns, consider the difference between “I”and “we.”  If a study is collaboratively written it may not be appropriate to use “I” (parts of a dissertation from a collaborative discipline may be taken from published articles that the author has co-written with other authors).
  • Finally, and probably most importantly, pay attention to the author’s tendencies. Personal pronoun use is controversial at least partly because its use in a given paper depends on that author’s writing style, and consequently the writing styles of her mentors.  Some dissertation supervisors in the hard fields, for example, will be traditionalists about personal pronoun use, and such supervisors may object to their use regardless of whether personal pronouns are accepted more widely in the field.  Use the above guidelines and list of personal pronoun uses to help direct revisions, but if an author uses no personal pronouns what-so-ever, it is almost always a conscious decision. The author’s stylistic preferences should be maintained in these cases.

Bibliography

Harwood, Nigel.  “(In)appropriate Personal Pronoun Use in Political Science: A Qualitative Study and a Proposed Heuristic for Future Research.”  Written Communication 23 (2006): 242-50.  Print.

—.  “Nowhere Has Anyone AttemptedIn This Article I Aim to Do Just That: A Corpus-based Study of Self-promotional I and We in Academic Writing across Four Disciplines.”  Journal of Pragmatics 37 (2005): 1207-31.  Print.

Hyland, Ken. “Writing in the Disciplines: Research Evidence for Specificity.”  Taiwan International ESP Journal 1.1 (2009): 5-22.  Print.

Klein, Kevin.  “Preferences for Narrative Pronouns in Texts on English Literature and Composition.”  Proceedings of the 1999 Deseret Language and Linguistics Society.  Eds. Alan D. Maiming, Heather Judson, Julie C. Runolfson, and Jessica Young.  United States: Deseret Language and Linguistics Society, 2000.  124-31.  Print.

Salazar, Danica, Aaron Ventura, and Isabel Verdaguer.  “A Cross-disciplinary Analysis of Personal and Impersonal Features in English and Spanish Scientific Writing.”  Biomedical English: A Corpus-based Approach.  Ed. Isabel Verdaguer, Natalia Judith Laso, and Danica Salazar.  Philidelphia: John Benjamins, 2013.  121-43.  Print.

Shaw, Philip.  “Chapter One: Introductory Remarks.”  Language and Discipline Perspectives on Academic Discourse.  Ed. Fløttum, Kjersti.  Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007.  2-13.  Print.

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Article by Shane Bryson

Shane finished his master’s degree in English literature in 2013 and has been working as a writing tutor and editor since 2009. He began proofreading and editing essays with Scribbr in early summer, 2014.

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