The use of personal pronouns in academic writing can be controversial. Until recently, most academic institutions have required that only the third person should be used. However, in recent years, the use of the first person has, in some circumstances, become acceptable. Nevertheless, the reason for the preferred use of the third person is that academic writing is generally objective as it concerns facts rather than opinions, which is particularly true of scientific writing. It is also felt that objective language is more formal, and therefore more appropriate to academic writing. 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.
In order to know 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. Examples of subjective and objective language are:
Subjective: I believe that the experiment was 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.
Students at university are expected to study facts which they have obtained from the works of well-respected authors, and subsequently present and explain these facts in essays. Such facts cannot be disputed; therefore, objective writing is preferable as it contains no bias.
Examples of this are:
Objective: Evidence has proved, beyond doubt, that average global temperature has risen over the past decade.
Subjective: Public opinion is sceptical about attempts by scientists to convince them that global temperature is rising.
There may be occasions when writers of essays 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 of the authors (giving citations) without bias, enabling readers to form their own opinions. However, the subjective approach is for writers to express their own opinions in an attempt to persuade their readers to accept them. Examples are:
Objective. Smith (2006), in the report on his extensive research into climate change, claims that it is caused by human activity, whereas Brown (2007) claims that it is due to natural conditions.
Subjective: The opinion of Smith (2006), that climate change is caused by human activity is more realistic than Brown’s (2007) view that it is due to natural conditions.
However, if essay writers do wish to state that a particular opinion is more feasible, they should quote evidence which supports that opinion.
There are occasions where subjective language may be appropriate, in which the first person in used; for example:
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 the subjective language is better here as it explains the task assigned to the writer, whereas the objective form does not give this information.
Similarly, subjective language is more appropriate in the following example:
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.
It can be seen from the above that the decision whether to use first person or third person usually depends on whether the language is subjective or objective. Moreover, since objective language is generally preferred in academic writing, it is more usual to use the third person. Nevertheless, there is an increasing acceptance of using the first person, where appropriate. However, writers of academic work would be wise to consult their tutors and the style guide of their university before they make any decision on the use of personal pronouns.
University of Adelaide, Objective language: Available at: https://www.adelaide.edu.au/writingcentre/sites/default/files/docs/learningguide-objectivelanguage.pdf [Accessed: 14.07.2020].
University of New Zealand, Massey University: Available at: https://owll.massey.ac.nz/academic-writing/1st-vs-3rd-person.php [Accessed: 14.07.2020].