The most irritating standard imposed on academic writing, in my opinion, is the instruction to “avoid using first person language”. While it is not universally upheld, at many points throughout university and high school, I have been told to write in third person exclusively, or, worse still, had marks deducted for submitting an assignment using first person pronouns (despite the exemplar we were instructed to follow doing the same thing). First person is not just inoffensive — it is honest, concise, and important. Deterring students and academics from its use is pointless at best and actively harmful at worst.
It doesn’t seem clear where, exactly, the convention of avoiding first person in academia comes from. Many academic works which have been lauded in Western canon for years are written in first person: Plato’s Republic, Machiavelli’s The Prince, and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, among others. Despite this, the norm has existed since at least 1959, when Strunk and White’s Elements of Style cited it as an academic convention worth observing. This norm has persisted, with many contemporary academic style guides insisting upon the removal of first-person pronouns from scholarly work.
What’s so offensive about first person language? Linguistically, person refers to a set of pronouns that identify the relationship between the speaker, addressee, and the entity identified pronominally. First person includes the speaker (“I” and “we” in English), second person includes the addressee (“you” in English, with “y’all” and “youse” being non-standard, but valid, second person plural pronouns), and third person includes neither speaker nor addressee (“he”, “she”, “they”, and “it”, for example). Pronouns, and the relationships they represent, are an intrinsic and value-neutral part of communication. Insisting upon avoiding them cannot have a linguistic basis: it is purely conventional.
Here are my four main aversion towards the rule:
The main objection was that first person appears subjective, while third person seems more objective. For example, a sentence like “I think this thesis is important” seems more biased than “this thesis is important”. The problem with the former sentence, however, is not that the author used first person, but that they tacked a superfluous verb phrase onto their claim. Removing phrases like “I think” or “I believe” can be a good way of refining your academic work, but not because of the pronouns they use. These qualifying phrases restrict the modality of your claims, making them seem less persuasive and more personal. In an example such as “In this essay, I argue that…”, first person does nothing to the perceived objectivity of the claim. Replacing “I” as the subject of the phrase — “this essay argues that…” — is barely semantically different. Furthermore, it’s unclear if objectivity is possible or necessary in academic writing. What we write is, inherently, a byproduct of the research we have done, the worldview we maintain, and the paradigms present in the institutions we attend. Few claims are universally true. Obscuring the author’s presence in their paper doesn’t lessen the impact of their biases on what they have written. While it is important to draw clear lines between fact and opinion or conjecture when you write, that does not mean that those facts can be, or should be, positioned as objective truth.
Most guides advising against using first person in academic writing cite “informality” as a reason to exclude it. This suffers from the same conflation as the prior point: “I think that…” is a phrase that one could easily consider improper in academia. The informality of that phrase, though, does not stem from its subject, but its proposition. Looking, again, at examples such as “I found that…”, the only way they could be classed as informal is circularly; they may sound informal because of how we arbitrarily define “formal” to exclude them. There is no valid tonal reason to exclude first person from what we consider valid academic writing.
Several guides framed third person writing as more believable than first person. This, again, is only true of hedging or qualifying statements that ought to be omitted. If anything, clearly identifying the source of a claim — “we conducted a survey that found…” rather than “the survey found…” — more clearly evidences that claim, lending credence to it, even if that credence is only superficial. Readers are aware that the paper they are reading was written by a person. To suggest that awareness of that would make them doubt its conclusions places no faith in readers.
The last defence of avoiding first person is that cutting first person phrases out of an essay makes it more concise. If it is possible to cut out a first person phrase without altering the meaning of a sentence, it is true that it is superfluous, and likely an example listed above like “I believe”. Removing first person pronouns from necessary phrases does not make writing more concise, and likely makes it unnecessarily complex. When the subject of an active phrase like “I argue” cannot be substituted with another subject, such as “this thesis argues”, the writer is forced to use passive voice: “I conducted a survey” becomes “a survey was conducted”.
Passive voice is also advised against in academia, can get unwieldy and sound unnatural, and can bury the agency of the actor in a given context, which can be bad; consider “a link between vaccines and autism was found” versus “I found a link between vaccines and autism”. Any capacity that third person and passive voice does have to confer objectivity to a statement can make tenuous or singular results sound universally true. Passive voice does not make writing more concise, but it does make it less pleasant to read.
Most of the critiques levelled at first person are targeted at superfluous, qualifying phrases like “I think”. If you are writing an essay and want it to sound more convincing or formal or be more concise, you should omit those phrases. However, blindly removing first person pronouns will only serve to make your writing worse.
The way we define academic writing has implications which trickle down past the bounds of academia itself. This definition shapes the essays and papers that academics produce, and, as such, the way that members of the public receive, understand, and act upon the claims that academics make. It is used as a tool to punish or reward students who write in a particular way. Being averse to first person writing is not just a silly thing that I have a personal gripe with; it informs how academics, students, and the public engage with academia. We should make our standards for academic writing as robust and honest as possible.