Avoiding the Use of the First and Second Person in Academic Writing

By Dawson Drake

In academic writing, writers are often asked to step out of their comfort zone and take on new forms of writing. Many fields require writers to avoid the use of first person pronouns (I, we, me, and us) and second person pronouns (you and your). Many basic ideas are communicated using these pronouns. “I think…” is the simplest way of demonstrating a personal argument. “You can…” is the simplest way of demonstrating that a task can be performed by an individual. “In today’s world, we see…” is the most common way of demonstrating a grounded point about the world people observe around them. Unfortunately, given the constraints of certain fields (which are strictly enforced by some professors), these are all considered unacceptable. This is not something to be too concerned about, as there are straightforward replacements for any of these cases.

The first person, for the most part, is the easiest to fix. As stated earlier, conveying opinions is generally where a misplaced first person sentence shows itself. In argumentative writing, one can avoid this altogether by persuasively stating an opinion as subjective fact, as is the point of an argument. Here is an example of how a thesis can be salvaged from an “I think” statement:

“I think that flowers are the most beautiful plant because of their pretty colors.”
vs.
“Because of their pretty colors, flowers are the most beautiful plants.”

“We statements” can generally be replaced in the same way, by stating a clear and evidence-based act. Instead of saying:

“In today’s world, we see a growing number of people who love flowers.”
a writer can say:
“In today’s world, there is a growing number of people who love flowers.”

This is a simple solution. The “we see” phrase that is commonly used by writers is easily swapped with a more factual phrase, in this case, “there is.” This not only omits the use of the first pronoun but makes the statement seem more objective and can strengthen the argument to a reader.

The second person is often more difficult for students to overcome, as it is key in how individuals explain basic thoughts and actions to each other in everyday language. For the most part, when a person says “you can do this to cause this,” they aren’t necessarily referring to the person they are talking to or writing to. If a writer says, “You can get strong by lifting weights everyday,” they aren’t telling that specific reader that he/she can do it, but that anyone can. In fact, they are saying “anyone can become strong by lifting weights everyday.” This is a more realistic and general statement, as it says what the writer actually means and meets the standard of avoiding the second person pronouns by using the third person instead. In doing so, this method also sounds more professional. A statement such as:

“You should clean your house once a week because it will build discipline in your lifestyle.”
becomes:
“A homeowner should clean his/her house once a week because it will build discipline in his/her lifestyle.”

In the second sentence, the idea of cleaning the house to have a better lifestyle is directed to more than one person, unlike the first, and becomes a more powerful statement as a result.

In every other Germanic language (and long ago in the English language) there exists a pronoun that is meant only to make general statements. In modern English, the equivalent of this is the word “one,” as in “one does this because of that.” The word “one” can be used to replace “you” sentences while still maintaining a greater generality than a specific word, similar to saying, “if a person…” or “if an individual…” Like before, a statement such as:

“You can fix most car problems with brute strength and the right tools.”
becomes:
“One can fix most car problems with brute strength and the right tools.”

Basically, the exact same thing is said, except a general statement is made instead of a directed one, and if the second person is forbidden in a particular field of writing, this can be a writer’s best bet. Using “one” also sounds fairly eloquent.

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