Sidebar: Writing in the First Person

At some point, most academic writers are told not to write in the first person. When instructors give this advice, it is usually on the basis that the first person makes a writer sound “unprofessional” or “subjective.” However, the reality is not so simple. When deciding whether to use the first person, there are several factors to consider.

The first question to consider is how your readers will react to the first person. In many genres—for example, the personal essay, the op-ed, and perhaps surprisingly, the scientific research paper—readers will expect the first person. Knowing the conventions of the interpretive community you are writing for will help you to determine when it’s appropriate to use the first person.

When You Should Not Use the First Person

Although expectations will vary according to your reader, most expert readers agree that there are some cases in which it can undermine your credibility to use the first person. The most common of these is:

  • Using “I think,” “I believe,” or similar phrases at the beginning of a sentence

The problem< with this type of sentence is that it is redundant. Readers know that you think or believe what you are writing—otherwise, you wouldn’t be writing it.

click here to see an example<

This example, from a student paper about Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, uses “I believe” unnecessarily:

In Renaissance-era productions of Twelfth Night, all of the female characters were played by men dressed as women. This means that when Viola disguises herself as a man, audiences would actually have been seeing a man disguised as a woman (Viola) disguised as a man (who the other characters call Cesario). I believe that, in some productions of the play, the confused genders in this situation were used to create an even more farcical effect by having a more masculine actor play Viola, so that it would be obvious to the audience that “Viola” was never really simply a woman in the first place. Rassmussen reports that in at least one performance, Viola was played by a man who was taller and had a deeper voice than the man playing “her” love interest, Orsino for comic effect.

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The phrase “I believe that” is unnecessary here, because it doesn’t add anything to the argument. The writer also goes on to give evidence< for what he is saying by citing Rassmussen, which means that we don’t just have to depend on what this writer believes.

Done<

  • To narrate a research process

One criterion for most research is that it be replicable: anyone, performing the same steps, should be able to follow the process. In the humanities, anyone with access to your source materials should be able to gather the same information that you did; in the social and hard sciences, anyone who does the experiment you did should obtain the same data as results. Researchers rarely write sentences like “I added the precipitate to the new solution” because it isn’t important who is doing the action, what is important is the fact that “the precipitate was added to the solution.”

click here to see an example<

This example, from the introductory section to a draft of a scientific research paper, uses the first person to go into unnecessary detail about the research process:

I decided to attempt to directly image Jupiter-mass planets around this particular system of T-Tauri stars because I knew that previous research using the Spitzer Space telescope had indicated the likely presence of such objects in that system.

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Here, the first person is redundant and distracting—because readers know that this writer is the paper’s author, they will know that she is the one performing the research. Here is her revised version of this sentence, which conveys the necessary information more concisely:

Because previous research using the Spitzer Space telescope indicated that Jupiter-mass planets were likely present in this system of T-Tauri stars, this study takes those stars as objects.

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Done<

  • When your instructor tells you not to

Some instructors will simply forbid I or we. You might disagree, but in this case there is probably nothing you can do.

Appropriate Uses of the First Person

Despite its bad reputation, the first person can helpfully focus your writing. It can be a tool for adding nuance to an argument and situating your thoughts within a bigger conversation—and these are important abilities to have when you’re writing to persuade readers. The first person can help you do this when:

  • You describe an action that is unique to you as a writer or researcher

This case is the flip-side of the case above, in which you don't tell your reader that you’re the one adding a precipitate to a solution. If you (or your research team) want to explain the significance of your work or emphasize that you are making a unique contribution to the field, then the best way to do this is with “I” or “we.” This is why the Introduction portion of research papers commonly uses “we”: to emphasize that this particular researcher or group of researchers, and no one else, has detected the Higgs Boson, created a drug that will cure a deadly disease, or unearthed a lost Shakespeare play. You will see this most often in fields where there are rewards to formulating an idea or solution before the rest of the field.

click here to see an example<

The following paragraph is part of the abstract< from a scientific article, called “Control of substrate access to the active site in methane monooxygenase.” We have bolded parts of the sentences in which the author effectively uses the first person plural.

Methanotrophs consume methane as their major carbon source and have an essential role in the global carbon cycle by limiting escape of this greenhouse gas to the atmosphere. These bacteria oxidize methane to methanol by soluble and particulate methane monooxygenases (MMOs). Soluble MMO contains three protein components, a 251-kilodalton hydroxylase (MMOH), a 38.6-kilodalton reductase (MMOR), and a 15.9-kilodalton regulatory protein (MMOB), required to couple electron consumption with substrate hydroxylation at the catalytic diiron centre of MMOH. Until now, the role of MMOB has remained ambiguous owing to a lack of atomic-level information about the MMOH–MMOB (hereafter termed H–B) complex. Here we remedy this deficiency by providing a crystal structure of H–B, which reveals the manner by which MMOB controls the conformation of residues in MMOH crucial for substrate access to the active site.

Lee, Seung Jae, Michael S. McCormick, Stephen J. Lippard, and Uhn-Soo Cho. “Control of Substrate Access to the Active Site in Methane Monooxygenase.” Nature 494 (February 2013): 380-384.

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In this abstract, the fourth sentence lays out a previously unsolved problem: there hasn’t been enough information about MMOB to know what it does. The final sentence then uses the first person plural appropriately: “we” (the research group) provide new data that answers this question. Since this sentence describes a unique contribution to science, it makes sense for the group to use “we.”

Done<

  • You want to distinguish your own position from another possible claim or idea

As we saw in the Acknowledgement and Response< and Use Communal Warrants that Your Readers Already Accept< lessons, one part of being a successful academic writer is persuading your readers that you are aware of the topics and claims other people in your field are proposing. One easy way to do this is to use the first person to situate yourself within that conversation.

click here to see an example<

For example, if you were writing about standardized testing outcomes and wanted to respond to another writer who writes about that topic, you might write:

While Samuelson sees these numbers as a reason to stress the policy’s negative outcomes for girls with below-average test scores, I believe more attention should be paid to the policy’s equally negative consequences for girls in the top 15% of their classes.

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This statement lets your reader know that you’ve read and thought about another argument, and can explain how and why your approach might be different.

Done<

  • You want to qualify a claim or statement

Earlier, we said that it’s generally not a good idea to use “I believe” or “I think” to introduce sentences. However, the first person lets you blunt the edge of a statement that might otherwise sound too absolute. (For more about these types of statements, see the Make Sure Your Claim Is Appropriately Qualified< sidebar.)

click here to see an example<

The following statement from an Introduction to Christian Thought class doesn’t leave any room for exceptions:

A person cannot be a true Christian without meditating at length on the teachings of Christ.

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However, more readers might agree with, or at least be willing to consider, the claim:

I believe, and many people agree, that a person cannot be a true Christian without meditating at length on the teachings of Christ.

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The use of the first person here makes this claim less a dogmatic declaration of an absolute truth, and more an expression of the writer and other Christians’ beliefs—a claim that readers may accept more easily than the first statement for that reason.

Done<

A Note on “We”

While knowing when to use “I” can be tricky, using “we” can be even trickier. This is because when you use “we,” you are not only speaking for yourself, you are speaking for others as well. Readers will seldom question your ability to speak for yourself and your actions. Some readers, however, will question whether you are qualified to speak for a “we”—especially when the “we” includes the readers themselves.

Sometimes, speaking for “we” doesn’t pose any problems. If you are writing an article about your group’s research, most readers won’t question that you can speak for the group when you say “we found that group A reacted more strongly to treatment than group B,” because that statement is a verifiable fact. However, if you use “we” to discuss a group’s beliefs or values, or make an assumption about those beliefs and values, you risk a negative reaction from your reader—and the bigger the group “we” represents, the more likely you are to find someone in that group who would disagree with your statement.

When using “we” in these circumstances, make sure that you clearly define to whom you refer. If writing for a specific interpretive community, “we” can be acceptable if you are describing something to which the community as a whole would agree. For instance, doctors universally believe it is their job to help the sick—in fact, they take an oath to do so. Using “we”, then, to discuss this community-specific value, demonstrates that you’re a member of the group and understand its core commitments. Using “we,” though to discuss how to achieve these aims, such as writing “We all think that the cessation of pain is the ultimate medical goal,” would misrepresent how some physicians interpret the phrase "do no harm."

Along these lines, certain genres, like editorials, make generous use of “we” especially when making policy suggestions, such as “We should implement a more graduated income tax.” “We” here refers to a future situation, and not necessarily a current one, and thus using “we” in these instances is less about speaking for someone, than encouraging a particular course of action.