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Use of Pronouns in Academic Writing

Published by at August 17th, 2021 , Revised On December 12, 2022

Pronouns are words that make reference to both specific and nonspecific things and people. They are used in place of nouns.

First-person pronouns (I, We) are rarely used in academic writing. They are primarily used in a reflective piece, such as a reflective essay or personal statement. You should avoid using second-person pronouns such as “you” and “yours”. The use of third-person pronouns (He, She, They) is allowed, but it is still recommended to consider gender bias when using them in academic writing.

The antecedent of a pronoun is the noun that the pronoun represents. In English, you will see the antecedent appear both before and after the pronoun, even though it is usually mentioned in the text before the pronoun.
The students could not complete the work on time because they procrastinated for too long.
Before he devoured a big burger, Michael looked a bit nervous.

The Antecedent of a Pronoun

Make sure the antecedent is evident and explicit whenever you use a pronoun in a sentence. You may want to replace the pronoun with the noun to eliminate any vagueness.

  • After the production and the car’s mechanical inspection were complete, it was delivered to the owner.

In the above sentence, it is unclear what the pronoun “it” is referring to.

  • After the production and the car’s mechanical inspection was complete, the car was delivered to the owner.

Use of First Person Pronouns (I, We) in Academic Writing

The use of first-person pronouns, such as “I” and “We”, is a widely debated topic in academic writing.

While some style guides, such as ‘APA” and “Harvard”, encourage first-person pronouns when describing the author’s actions, many other style guides discourage their use in academic writing to keep the attention to the information presented within rather than who describes it.

Similarly, you will find some leniency towards the use of first-person pronouns in some academic disciplines, while others strictly prohibit using them to maintain an impartial and neutral tone.

It will be fair to say that first-person pronouns are increasingly regular in many forms of academic writing.  If ever in doubt whether or not you should use first-person pronouns in your essay or assignment, speak with your tutor to be entirely sure.

Avoid overusing first-person pronouns in academic papers regardless of the style guide used. It is recommended to use them only where required for improving the clarity of the text.

If you are writing about a situation involving only yourself or if you are the sole author of the paper, then use the singular pronouns (I, my). Use plural pronouns (We, They, Our) when there are coauthors to work.

Use the first person Examples
To signal your position on the topic or make a claim different to what the opposition says. In this research study, I have argued that
First, I have provided the essay outline
We conclude that
To report steps, procedures, and methods undertaken. I conducted research
We performed the statistical analysis.
To organise and guide the reader through the text. Our findings suggest that A is more significant than B, contrary to the claims made in the literature.
However, I argue that.

Avoiding First Person Pronouns

You can avoid first-person pronouns by employing any of the following three methods.

Sentences including first-person pronouns Improvement Improved sentence
We conducted in-depth research. Use the third person pronoun The researchers conducted in-depth research.
I argue that the experimental results justify the hypothesis. Change the subject This study argues that the experimental results justify the hypothesis.
I performed statistical analysis of the dataset in SPSS. Switch to passive voice The dataset was statistically analysed in SPSS.

There are advantages and disadvantages of each of these three strategies. For example, passive voice introduces dangling modifiers, which can make your text unclear and ambiguous. Therefore, it would be best to keep first-person pronouns in the text if you can use them.

In some forms of academic writing, such as a personal statement and reflective essay, it is completely acceptable to use first-person pronouns.

The Problem with the Editorial We

Avoid using the first person plural to refer to people in academic text, known as the “editorial we”. The use of the “editorial we” is quite common in newspapers when the author speaks on behalf of the people to express a shared experience or view.

Refrain from using broad generalizations in academic text. You have to be crystal clear and very specific about who you are making reference to. Use nouns in place of pronouns where possible.

  • When we tested the data, we found that the hypothesis to be incorrect.
  • When the researchers tested the data, they found the hypothesis to be incorrect.
  • As we started to work on the project, we realized how complex the requirements were.
  • As the students started to work on the project, they realized how complex the requirements were.

If you are talking on behalf of a specific group you belong to, then the use of “we” is acceptable.

  • It is essential to be aware of our own
  • It is essential for essayists to be aware of their own weaknesses.
  • Essayists need to be aware of their own

Use of Second Person Pronouns (You) in Academic Writing

It is strictly prohibited to use the second-person pronoun “you” to address the audience in any form of academic writing. You can rephrase the sentence or introduce the impersonal pronoun “one” to avoid second-person pronouns in the text.

  • To achieve the highest academic grade, you must avoid procrastination.
  • To achieve the highest academic grade, one must avoid procrastination.
  • As you can notice in below Table 2.1, all participants selected the first option.
  • As shown in below Table 2.1, all participants selected the first option.

Use of Third Person Pronouns (He, She, They) in Academic Writing

Third-person pronouns in the English language are usually gendered (She/Her, He/Him). Educational institutes worldwide are increasingly advocating for gender-neutral language, so you should avoid using third-person pronouns in academic text.

In the older academic text, you will see gender-based nouns (Fishermen, Traitor) and pronouns (him, her, he, she) being commonly used. However, this style of writing is outdated and warned against in the present times.

You may also see some authors using both masculine and feminine pronouns, such as “he” or “she”, in the same text, but this generally results in unclear and inappropriate sentences.

Considering using gender-neutral pronouns, such as “they”, ‘there”, “them” for unknown people and undetermined people. The use of “they” in academic writing is highly encouraged. Many style guides, including Harvard, MLA, and APA, now endorse gender natural pronouns in academic writing.

On the other hand, you can also choose to avoid using pronouns altogether by either revising the sentence structure or pluralizing the sentence’s subject.

  • When a student is asked to write an essay, he can take a specific position on the topic.
  • When a student is asked to write an essay, they can take a specific position on the topic.
  • When students are asked to write an essay, they are expected to take a specific position on the topic.
  • Students are expected to take a specific position on the essay topic.
  • The writer submitted his work for approval
  • The writer submitted their work for approval.
  • The writers submitted their work for approval.
  • The writers’ work was submitted for approval.

Make sure it is clear who you are referring to with the singular “they” pronoun. You may want to rewrite the sentence or name the subject directly if the pronoun makes the sentence ambiguous.

For example, in the following example, you can see it is unclear who the plural pronoun “they” is referring to. To avoid confusion, the subject is named directly, and the context approves that “their paper” addresses the writer.

  • If the writer doesn’t complete the client’s paper in time, they will be frustrated.
    • The client will be frustrated if the writer doesn’t complete their paper in due time.

If you need to make reference to a specific person, it would be better to address them using self-identified pronouns. For example, in the following sentence, you can see that each person is referred to using a different possessive pronoun.

The students described their experience with different academic projects: Mike talked about his essay, James talked about their poster presentation, and Sara talked about her dissertation paper.

Ensure Consistency Throughout the Text

Avoid switching back and forth between first-person pronouns (I, We, Our) and third-person pronouns (The writers, the students) in a single piece. It is vitally important to maintain consistency throughout the text.

For example,
The writers completed the work in due time, and our content quality is well above the standard expected.
We completed the work in due time, and our content quality is well above the standard expected.
The writers completed the work in due time, and the content quality is well above the standard expected.“

How to Use Demonstrative Pronouns (This, That, Those, These) in Academic Writing

Make sure it is clear who you are referring to when using demonstrative pronouns. Consider placing a descriptive word or phrase after the demonstrative pronouns to give more clarity to the sentence.

For example,
The political relationship between Israel and Arab states has continued to worsen over the last few decades, contrary to the expectations of enthusiasts in the regional political sphere. This shows that a lot more needs to be done to tackle this.            The political relationship between Israel and Arab states has continued to worsen over the last few decades, contrary to the expectations of enthusiasts in the regional political sphere. This situation shows that a lot more needs to be done to tackle this issue.

About Alvin Nicolas

Avatar for Alvin NicolasNicolas has a master's degree in literature and a PhD degree in statistics. He loves to write, cook and run. Nicolas is passionate about helping students at all levels.