It is tempting, and we all love a bit of attention focused on us. First-person pronouns can create trust in the right context. In the wrong context, or if taken too far, readers start looking at us like the ego-maniacs we may be turning into. I . . . I . . . I . . . me . . . me . . . me.

Used wisely, first-person pronouns (I, me, my, we, us) create a sense of close connection between friends for promoting a subjective and personal perspective. This is appropriate and trust-enhancing in a personal reflection or narrative story about an event in one’s personal life. It meets reader expectations for such a piece of writing.

Used in an analysis or argument-based piece of writing (a.k.a. formal academic writing), first-person pronouns often have the opposite effect (trust lowering). In this context, we are on professional terms, not necessarily intimate friendship terms. We want readers to view us as a credible expert focused on an idea, not ourselves. First-person pronouns shift the focus away from the ideas being presented and back onto the writer. This raises a red flag that maybe the writer is motivated more by a personal bias rather than a fair and balanced synthesis of the facts.

Third-person pronouns (she, her, he, they, them, him, it) are viewed as more trustworthy because they project an objective, unbiased tone. This makes them appropriate for any type of academic writing to include personal reflection or narrative essay (non-fiction story).

Before we go on, here is a quick note about using “they” as a singular noun. It’s ok. Many style guides, including APA (Lee), have determined that the word “they” is acceptable and correct when used as a gender-neutral singular pronoun. In times past, the masculine forms were taken to include women too. However, in modern times (perhaps as a result of identity politics) that is not the case.

Second-person pronoun (you) use is generally ok but can become another slippery slope in our writing. When overused, the “you” usage may come across as a lecture. This can feel judgmental to a reader–alienating them.

First, second, and third person pronouns each have their place.

  • Use first-person pronouns when you, the writer, are the main character or the focus in on your experience (ex. narrative essay or personal reflection).
  • Limit second-person pronouns in any piece of writing, unless you want to be viewed as huffy and stuffy.
  • When in doubt, use third-person—especially when the topic is about something or someone else (not you).

I hope this helps. Your writing coach, Beth

Reference

Lee, C. (2015 November 16). The Use of singular “they” in APA style. APA Blog. Retrieved from: https://blog.apastyle.org/apastyle/2015/11/the-use-of-singular-they-in-apa-style.html

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