Centre for Academic Success
Academic Guides : Writing
The question of whether or not it is acceptable to use personal language in your writing is not clear cut. It is one of those areas where you need to check with your course tutors what their policy is: on some courses it is OK to make your writing fairly personal and subjective; on others it is not permissable. It depends aswell on the type of writing you are doing.
Traditionally, academic writing was impersonal: you would not be able to use words like I, my etc. There has, however, been a shift in this approach over the past few years. Maybe in line with a general move towards more accountability in some walks of life (politicians say “I” a lot more nowadays), some academic writing has become more personal. There may too be an influence from the United States here. You must check on your course, though.
In general, it is probably best not to use too much personal language. Academic writing should very often be objective, with a lack of personal commitment, and being subjective may weaken your argument and lay you open to disagreement or criticism. However, there are times when personal language may be more appropriate; for example, when writing conclusions and when you want to make it clear that it is in fact your personal opinion that you are expressing, rather than someone else’s. Also, if you are describing what you actually did, for example on work placement, personal language is often unavoidable.
Two other general points:
It’s best not to refer to the reader as “you”. Don’t write, for example, As you can see in Figure 1. Use one of the ways shown below to avoid this.
It’s also best not to refer to yourself as “we”. You will see this in some books, but it is somewhat old-fashioned, and may be regarded as pompous or pretentious. Leave the “royal we” for the Queen! And don’t refer to yourself as “the author”, as it can get very confusing if you’re making references to other authors; it may not be clear who actually said what. The only time it is permissable to use “we” is if you are writing about groupwork and saying what you did as a group.
How to avoid personal language
There are three main ways of doing this:
use a passive rather than an active verb
use an impersonal phrase such as it is believed
make words such as the essay, this section etc the subject of the sentence
These are often used in introductions to essays or to chapters or sections in a longer piece of work when you are stating what the writing will deal with and how it is structured.
In my essay I will discuss the role of the ombudsman. (=active verb)
You could write:
In this essay the role of the ombudsman will be discussed. (=passive verb)
I have divided the chapter into three sections.
The chapter is divided into three sections.
The subject of these phrases is “it”; for example:
It can be imagined that ...
It may be argued that ...
It is widely held that ...
It should be clear from how you phrase the surrounding language whether or not you are actually expressing a personal opinion here.
As an alternative to using passive
verbs in introductions etc, you can change the subject.
In this essay I will consider the question of immigration control.
You could write:
This essay considers the question of immigration control.
In Chapter 2 I will outline the main causes of the problem.
Chapter 2 outlines the main causes of the problem.
1. You can apply the same theory of learning to small children.
2. You can only do this after the initial preparation has been conducted.
4. In the second section of the
report, we will consider the environmental
Suggest alternatives to the following
1 In this essay I will discuss the main differences between the English and Scottish legal systems.
2 I have divided my report into five sections.
4 The opinion of the present author in this essay is that the importance of the monarchy should be reduced.
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