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Pronouns: First- and third-person, anthropomorphism, and editorial we

First-person pronouns

The APA Style rules encourage authors to use first-person pronouns (e.g., I, me, we) versus the third person to make attribution clear: 

Use the first person rather than the third person when describing the work you did as part of your research and when expressing your own views. If you are writing a paper by yourself, use the pronoun "I"; do not use the pronoun "we" to refer to yourself if you do not have coauthors. (American Psychological Association, 2020, p. 120).

If you’re not sure if using the first person is acceptable in your work, please check with your instructor, advisor, or journal editor.

Third-person pronouns

Third person maintains an objective, unbiased perspective on the description. For example, in the third person, an author refers to himself or herself as “the author” or “the researcher”, versus using the first person . While an objective perspective may be required in some types of writing, as a general rule, use first-person pronouns when you’re describing your own actions or experiences, e.g., “based on my professional experiences, I chose to . . .”. Without the first-person pronoun, readers may not be sure who you’re referring to or what your role was. For example, compare “the researcher randomly selected 10 participants and interviewed them” to “I randomly selected 10 participants and interviewed them”. In the latter sentence, the first person identifies the author as the researcher. Similarly, consider the difference between “the researcher randomly selected 10 participants and interviewed them” and “the researcher randomly selected 10 participants and interviewed us”. The second sentence indicates that the author of the work was a participant in the research study. 

Moving from the first to the third person

If your instructor or reviewer has directed you to use an objective perspective in your work, consider if you’ve used statements such as “I think” or “it’s my belief that” in your text. While it makes sense to use the first person when describing your actions or experiences, it isn’t necessary to preface your thoughts with “I think” because you’re the author of the text, so it’s understood that your text represents your thinking. If you’ve used “I think”, try rewriting the sentence to remove the first person pronoun(s). For example, “I think Canadians talk a lot about the weather" becomes "Canadians talk a lot about the weather".

Avoid anthropomorphism with pronouns

Anthropomorphism involves “attribut[ing] human characteristics to animals or to inanimate sources” (American Psychological Association, 2020, p. 117). For example, “this essay will discuss sources of inter-organizational conflict” anthropomorphizes the essay, which can’t discuss anything as it isn’t alive. The author, however, can discuss the topic within the essay. Unless directed otherwise by an instructor or supervisor, students can claim their actions in their essays, such as, “in this essay, I will discuss sources of inter-organizational conflict ”. In a team assignment, rather than “this essay will recommend strategies for improved sustainability practices”, use “we” to claim the action: “we will provide our recommendations for improved sustainability practices”.

Editoral we

The editorial we can be a problem when it’s unclear to whom we refers. It’s fine to use we when referring to a specific group to which you belong (e.g., as a teammate or a co-author: “we completed our research”), but when we is used more broadly to refer to an unspecific group, the pronoun is less clear. For example, in “we need to consider the implications of generational differences within workplaces”, it’s unclear who “we” is. If “we” is an organization and the author is an employee of that organization, it would be more accurate to say “my organization needs to consider the implications of generational differences within workplaces”. Using the same example, “we” could equally refer to a more specific group, such as managers, in which case it would be clearer to identify the specific group: “managers need to consider the implications of generational differences within workplaces”. Here’s another example: “we know it’s important to take action to protect the environment”. Who is “we”? Are they environmentalists, scientists, politicians, Canadians, or some other group? Is the author of the document a member of the group(s)? Replacing “we” with a more specific description makes it easier for the reader to understand the sentence: “all the members of my organization know it’s important to protect the environment”. Equally, the author could put himself or herself in the sentence: “along with other members of my organization, I know it’s important to take action to protect the environment”.

Do you have questions about this tip or any other writing matter? Please contact the Writing Centre as we would be pleased to assist you.

Theresa Bell
Manager, Blended Learning Success

(Originally published in Crossroads September 27, 2016; updated June 11, 2020)

Reference

American Psychological Association. (2020). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (7th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1037/0000165-000