PG Writing Group 28/05/12 Social Science South Rm 2204 Monday 12-1pm
How often have you seen the rule “Never use ‘I’ in academic writing.”? This ‘rule’, like most of the writing advice I give, should be considered in light of the discipline you come from and the reasoning underlying the rule. Once you understand your disciplinary norms and the rule, then you’ll know whether or not to break it.
The first person pronouns include the singular forms ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘my’, and the plural forms ‘we’, ‘us’, and ‘our’. Irrespective of disciplinary norm, it is always acceptable to use first person when providing your perspective or describing your study. The third person is acceptable when writing about the literature. The second person, ‘you’, is often considered too conversational to be used in any discipline. Alternatives include ‘the people’, ‘individuals’, ‘the community’, ‘one’, or ‘the reader’.
Whether or not to use first person to describe your study or your perspective will come down to your disciplinary norm and your choice of style. As a very broad generalisation, the sciences tend to avoid using first person in favour of the seemingly anonymous third person which implies neutrality, objectivity and impartiality. In the humanities, where agency is valued, first person is often encouraged as it positions the researcher ‘inside’ the research. The social sciences often lie somewhere in between.
One of the major advantages of using first person is that it can improve style. Sentences are often more direct and this improves clarity. First person can also add strength to an opinion statement as third person can give the impression of lack of ‘ownership’ of ideas. Care must be taken, however, to avoid first person sounding too conversational, personal or emotional. I would advise using first person knowingly, selectively and sparingly.
- For more about pronouns see Grammar Revolution’s List of pronouns
- For more about first person see Universityof North Carolina’s Writing Centre Should I use ‘I’? and Duke University’s Writing Studio Because I Said So: Effective Use of the First Person Perspective and the Personal Voice in Academic Writing
- If you would a more academic view of first person see: Webb (1992) The use of first person in academic writing: objectivity, language and gatekeeping. Journal Advanced Nursing. 17:747-752
- If you’re interested in how things have changed in the sciences see Gross & Harmon (eds). 2007. The Scientific Literature: A Guided Tour.University ofChicago Press. Early science texts of the 1600s entreated scientists not to “bore the reader with a dull, flat style” and often used first person in a very personal style. Look at Hooke’s sketch of a flea (p9) and the corresponding figure legend “But as for the beauty of it, the microscope manifests [the flea] to be all over adorned with a curiously polished suit of sable armour…in the forepart of his head he has two long jointed feelers, or rather smellers….and between these a small proboscis or probe that I have perceived him to slip in or out”.
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