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1.21 Avoiding personal language

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

Passive verbs

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.

Instead of:

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)

Instead of:

I have divided the chapter into three sections.

Better:

The chapter is divided into three sections.


Impersonal phrases

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.


Change the subject

As an alternative to using passive verbs in introductions etc, you can change the subject.
For example:

Instead of:

In this essay I will consider the question of immigration control.

You could write:

This essay considers the question of immigration control.

Instead of:

In Chapter 2 I will outline the main causes of the problem.

Alternatively:

Chapter 2 outlines the main causes of the problem.

Exercises

Exercise 1
Suggest improvements to the following sentences.

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.

_______________________________________________________________________________


3. The figures are accurate to within 1%, but you should note that local variations may apply.

_______________________________________________________________________________

4. In the second section of the report, we will consider the environmental
consequences.

______________________________________________________________________________


Exercise 2

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.

__________________________________________________________________________________


3 I will conclude by proposing that all drugs should be legalized.

_________________________________________________________________________________

4 The opinion of the present author in this essay is that the importance of the monarchy should be reduced.

_________________________________________________________________________________


5 In the third part of the essay, we will look at the reasons for public hysteria over the SARS virus.

__________________________________________________________________________________


Links to further resources on avoiding personal language

English for Academic Purposes

 

 

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Steve Gould
Last updated: 4 January 2011

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