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First Person, Third Person: Who Are These People in My Scientific Writing?

Summary

What are the first and third person in academic writing? Should you use one over the other in your journal articles?

Most of the time, we think of the term ‘person’ as referring to a specific human being. Person has an additional grammatical meaning, however. In this article, we describe the grammatical person as it pertains to writing in English.

Verbs and pronouns take on several forms (officially, conjugations and declensions) according to the grammatical person of the subject or object. In English, there are three persons, called first, second, and third. Each of these can be further divided into a singular and a plural form. Pronouns for each of the three persons can be found in the table below.

English pronouns according to person.

First personSecond personThird person
I / me / my, mineYou/ your, yoursHe, she, it / him, her / his, her, hers, its
We / us / our, ourssame for pluralThey / them / their, theirs

The first person indicates that the subject/object is speaking.

  • I prefer to eat the vegetables from my garden.
  • We will decide what is best for the company.
  • All of the cakes were given to me yesterday.

The second person indicates that the subject/object is being spoken to. The second person includes imperative statements (commands) directed at the listener.

  • You prefer to eat vegetables from the nearby market.
  • You are doing a great job!
  • Children, please put away your toys before dinner.

The third person indicates that the subject/object is being spoken about.

  • He prefers to eat as few vegetables as possible
  • Doctors renew their licenses periodically.
  • I am standing where she stood yesterday.

How does this information relate to academic writing?

The use of first person in scientific papers is still under debate, with many pointing out that the third person maintains an air of objectivity (especially when combined with the passive voice). However, an increasing number of journals are specifically encouraging the use of the first person, which can often simplify writing. For example, the journal Nature says, “Nature journals prefer authors to write in the active voice (‘we performed the experiment…’).” If you are unsure about the acceptability of the first person in your writing, check your target journal’s author guidelines. If the guidelines do not mention first or third person, consult some recently published articles to see how they are written.

We hope that today’s article provided some insight into the role of person in your writing. As always, if you have questions, send us an email. Best of luck!

Tags Writing a manuscript Editing tips Formal tone Word choice Grammar Person English language

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About the Author: Ben Mudrak

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