FIRST PERSON v THIRD PERSON IN ACADEMIC WRITING
Understanding Personal Pronouns
The use of personal pronouns in academic writing can be controversial. Until recently, most academic institutions have stipulated that only the third person should be used. The reason for this is that academic writing is generally perceived to be objective as it concerns facts rather than opinions, particularly scientific writing. It is also felt that objective language is more formal, and therefore more appropriate for academic writing. However, the use of the first person has, in certain circumstances, become increasingly acceptable. Two websites, one by the University of Adelaide and the other by the University of New Zealand, give useful information on the use of personal pronouns and subjective and objective language.
Subjective and Objective Language
To determine when it is appropriate to use first and third-person pronouns, it is necessary to understand the difference between subjective and objective language.
Subjective language focuses on the first person and can be used to express opinions, feelings, and emotions, whereas objective language involves facts. Objective language is impartial, non-judgmental, and accurate, whereas subjective language can express the writer’s opinion, for which proof cannot always be demonstrated. The following are examples of subjective and objective language:
Subjective: I believe that the experiment was a success.
Objective: The experiment was a success.
Subjective: I conducted research by means of a questionnaire.
Objective: A questionnaire was prepared in order to conduct a research project.
Why is objective language usually the preferred option in academic writing?
University students are expected to study facts obtained from the works of well-respected authors, and then present and explain these in essays. Such facts cannot be disputed; therefore, objective writing is preferable as it contains no bias.
Examples of this are as follows:
Objective: Evidence has proved, beyond doubt, that average global temperature has risen over the past decade.
Subjective: Public opinion is sceptical about attempts made by scientists to convince them that global temperature is rising.
There may be occasions when essay writers have conducted extensive research on a topic which has revealed conflicting evidence on the part of various authors. In this case, the objective approach is to present the opinion of all the authors (giving citations) without bias, enabling readers to form their own opinions. Conversely, the subjective approach is for writers to express their own opinions in an attempt to persuade their readers to accept them. Examples of each approach are as follows:
Objective: In the report on his extensive research into climate change, Smith (2006) claims that it is caused by human activity, whereas Brown (2007) claims that it is due to natural conditions.
Subjective: Smith’s (2006) opinion that climate change is caused by human activity is more realistic than Brown’s (2007) argument that it is due to natural conditions.
If essay writers wish to state that a particular opinion is more feasible, they should quote evidence which supports that opinion.
In what circumstances is it appropriate to use subjective language?
There are occasions where subjective language may be appropriate, in which case the first person in used, as indicated in the following examples.
Subjective: As part of the training course, I was required to interview 50 participants.
Objective: Fifty participants were interviewed as part of this course.
It can be argued that subjective language is better here as it explains the task assigned to the writer, whereas the objective format does not give this information.
Similarly, in the following example, subjective language is more appropriate:
Subjective: We experienced much disappointment when our team’s attempt to obtain volunteers for our project failed.
Objective: No volunteers were obtained for the project.
The decision whether to use the first person or third person usually depends on whether the language is subjective or objective. Because objective language is generally preferred in academic writing, it is more usual to use the third person. Nevertheless, there is an increasing acceptance of the use of the first person, where appropriate. However, writers of academic work are advised to consult their tutors and their university style guide before they make any decision on the use of personal pronouns.