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Choosing the Best Pronoun

One important decision you must make in academic writing is whether to use a pronoun and, if so, which one to use.

First, let's look at the system.

Pronoun System
  Singular Plural

1st person
(= the person who is writing)

I, me, mine

we, our,
2nd person
(= the person(s) being written to)
you, your you, your
3rd person
(= the persons/things being written about)
he, she, it, one, his, her, one's they, their

Here are three simple rules to follow.

Use first-person pronouns sparingly.

Academic writing should guide the reader to focus on the ideas, not the author. Avoid starting sentences with "I think" or "I believe." Such qualifiers are unnecessary.

Not this: After I compiled a 30-item questionnaire, I administered it to all members of our support staff. My analysis of the results suggested that our current orientation is too short and does not cover all the necessary topics.

But this: A 30-item questionnaire administered to all members of Community Services support staff suggested that the current orientation is too short and does not cover all the necessary topics.

Warning : Don't try to get around the first-person rule by speaking about yourself in the third person. Writing something like "A 30-item questionnaire compiled by this writer..." or "After this human service practitioner compiled..." is NEVER correct. If it is appropriate to draw attention to yourself, then you should use "I", not "this writer." Generally, however, it's better to avoid the personal reference altogether. (See APA manual, p. 37, for additional information.)

Avoid second-person pronouns.

Use "you" when you are writing to a specific, identifiable, person. Do not use "you" when you are making a general statement to a general reader.

Not this: A literature review showed that you do not have to have been addicted yourself to be able to treat addicts successfully.

But this: A literature review showed that therapists do not have to have been addicted themselves to be able to treat addicts successfully.

Not this: To be a good counselor you have to be able to imagine yourself in your clients; shoes.

But this: Good counselors must have the ability to put themselves in their clients' shoes.

Editing Tip: Use the "FIND" command in your word processor to search for all "I," "we," "you" or "your" references in your document. Then, rephrase the sentence to avoid any improper pronoun use.

Prefer third-person pronouns, but consider if you need any pronoun at all.

Often you can make a stronger statement by revising a sentence and leaving out the pronouns.

OK: The survey respondents' written remarks showed that the vast majority of them were in favor of changing their hours to a flex-time system.

Better: The majority of survey respondents favored a change to flex-time.