Writing Tips

Using First and Second Person in Academic Writing

Many of us “older” folks have always been taught to refrain from using first or second person in academic writing. However, newer schools of thought are conceding that sometimes, it’s ok. (A great article from Duke here.) I usually ask my freshman composition students to simply refrain from using first or second person. This requires them to think more carefully about the language they use and prepares them for later course in which the professor may still be following tradition.

However, there are times when NOT using I or you could be problematic. Here is a question I received from one of my ENG 101 students this summer, and my response. Please note that the paper in question is an evaluation, which by its nature requires the author use his/her personal opinion and experience. 🙂

Student: In my last paper, I saw how you noted that in academic papers I should avoid using first and second person (I and you). Does this apply to this upcoming assignment, since it is a review of my choice?

Karen’s Response:

In general, the rule is to avoid first and second person in academic writing. There are some instances where doing so is perfectly acceptable, but it’s a fine line.

In general, you can use first person if you are referring directly to your personal experience. ie “I visited the Starbucks on 8th street last Wednesday.” However, you should avoid using I to express an opinion. ie “I think/I believe/In my opinion” Instead, simply say what you think or believe without the personal pronoun. This makes your argument more authoritative.

Starbucks is the best coffee place in town. vs I think Starbucks is the best coffee place in town.

In addition, you should never use I to write about yourself writing the paper. ie “I have chosen to write my evaluation on X.” Or “As I was writing my paper…”

You is a little more tricky. If you are speaking directly to the audience, it’s ok to use you. In this instance, for example, you might recommend that your readers visit a certain restaurant. It’s perfectly acceptable to say something like, “The next time you are looking for a great restaurant, I highly encourage you to try X.” However, you don’t want to use you in a general sense. ie “Imagine you have been wrangling with your children all day…” This can lead to disengagement for readers who cannot identify with the scenario. Another example would be to use you as an impersonal pronoun to refer to all people–the general rule of thumb is to only use second person when you are directly speaking to your audience.

In a nutshell, there are certain instances, especially in an assignment like this one, where the use of I/you is pertinent. It’s important to think carefully about it and not to overuse either. When in doubt, leave it out. 🙂

I hope this is helpful for you!


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