Usage and Grammar

Q. I was taught to exclusively use third person in academic writing, especially in research papers. Now that I’m in university, I have seen increasing use of first person in essays and papers. I couldn’t find anything on this in CMOS or on the website. Is there any sort of guideline on when to use different perspectives? Or does choosing first, second, and third person in writing have little impact as long as a sense of professionalism is maintained?

A. The ninth edition of A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations—known as Turabian and intended as a CMOS for students—includes a section on first-person pronouns that begins as follows: “Almost everyone has heard the advice to avoid using I or we in academic writing. In fact, opinions differ on this point. Some teachers tell students never to use I, because it makes their writing ‘subjective.’ Others encourage using I as a way to make writing more lively and personal” (§ 11.1.7, p. 120).

Turabian then offers some guidelines: For example, try to avoid beginning your sentences with I believe or I think (which go without saying). And resist the temptation to provide a running commentary on your research (First I did this . . . Then I did this . . .). You should also avoid using the royal we to refer to yourself and the generic we to refer to people in general.

But the occasional use of first person—for example, to describe something that you in fact did or plan to do—can make writing sound less dogmatic. For more details (including why researchers avoid the first person to describe actions that must be replicated by other researchers), see § 11.1.7.