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Using personal pronouns in corporate and academic writing

October 13, 2021

There’s an unwritten rule (no doubt written, in some places) that you should never use personal pronouns (we, us, I, our, etc.) in corporate or academic writing. Instead, you need to use the third person (e.g. ‘the authors’), or eliminate altogether the person or organisation responsible. Blog posts are different—they’re more informal, so using personal pronouns is accepted there.

But why not everywhere?

I certainly don’t have an answer for that, but saying ‘it’s traditional’, ‘that’s how it’s always been done’, ‘that’s the rule’ just doesn’t cut it, in my opinion.

I’m sure the plain language people, and others, have done studies on this, but it was brought to mind when a client asked What are your thoughts on using personal pronouns in a scientific publication? I’ve occasionally seen it but it’s an unwritten rule that scientific publications are written from the point of view of a third party.

Their question reminded me of a 300p government report on hydrogeology I’d edited recently, which DID use personal pronouns. It was a refreshing change! As I wrote back to that client: ‘… I also like how you used ‘we’, ‘our’ etc. in a government report—it made it much more readable, and far easier to edit because I wasn’t trying to figure out or add who (person, department, role) was responsible for doing things.’

An example from that 300p report (‘we’ refers to the authors of the report):

‘We measured the initial groundwater level in all bores …

Before 2016, we had opportunistically monitored ….

Because the water levels in bore [XYZ] were likely to be tidally influenced, we recorded water levels hourly …’

Back to corporate/government writing… Often the third person is used to hide the person/entity responsible for an action or a response, and it may be quite deliberate. Government and corporate reports are very good at this—it’s CYA* at its best! By saying something was (or should be) done, but never saying WHO did it or is to do it, or WHO is responsible for any actions arising from it, no-one bears responsibility if it fails. The proverbial buck can be passed around forever, without ever stopping on someone’s desk.

My recommendation: Unless your style guide (in-house, external) says otherwise, consider using personal pronouns in your corporate/government/academic writing. And if your in-house style guide says not to, question WHY the authors of the style guide recommend this. ‘It’s tradition’ is not an acceptable answer, in my opinion. Your responsibility as a writer or editor is to your readers and ensuring they can not only read but also comprehend the material they’re reading.

* CYA = cover your arse (‘ass’ for those in the US)

One comment

  1. Different disciplines have styles that underlie their belief systems. For example, the sciences often value the observation not the actor, and the “passive” language highlights object. For example, in the article “The language of psychology: APA style as epistemology. “ The authors examine some of the less obvious characteristics of APA style to show how they support the discipline’s commitment to the empirical method”.



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