Using Pronouns in Academic Writing | Debates and Guidelines
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, 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 (“he,” “she,” “they”) should be used in a way that avoids gender bias.
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.
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.
Here it is unclear whether “it” refers to the interview, the test, or both.
First-person pronouns (“I” and “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.||
|… to report methods, procedures, and steps undertaken.||
|… to signal your position in a debate or contrast your claims with another source.||
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Third-person pronouns (“he,” “she,” “they”)
Third-person singular pronouns in English are traditionally gendered (“he”/”him,” “she”/”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.
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.
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).
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”).
Demonstrative pronouns (“this,” “that,” “these,” “those”)
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.