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First and second person

Are the first and second person (I, me, my; we, us, our; you, your) appropriate in academic writing? As for the first person, yes, as long as it is used properly. It occurs in much writing even in the hard sciences. Scientists frequently speak of "our research" and "our findings" (though some teachers and editors agree with Mark Twain's disdain for the editorial "we"). As for the first person singular, one finds it even in the most serious scientific writing. E. O. Wilson, a prominent Harvard biologist, notes his formal use of the first person, but also the limits he observed: "very little emotion was expressed beyond the occasional 'I was interested in the problem of . . .' or 'It turned out, to my surprise, that. . . .' " Thus both sides of the debate over the propriety of the first person are in a sense right: it's okay to use I even in the most formal settings, but not to venture into editorializing and emotion. In less formal academic settings (including student writing, by and large) and in some fields like literary studies, it's even acceptable to write with a certain amount of personal reaction and feeling. The right amount of "me-ness" in one's writing will vary from field to field, journal to journal, teacher to teacher: as you gain expertise in a particular field, you'll learn what the rules are.

  You is rather a different kettle of fish. It really doesn't belong in the most formal academic writing. Directly addressing the reader changes the dynamic of the essay or paper. In the hard sciences this would rarely be appropriate, though in the humanities one finds the second person more often. I happen to use it a fair amount (in part because one of my favorite old authors, Machiavelli, used it very cleverly), but others will see it differently.


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