Writing in the Third Person

All pieces of writing have a “voice” or point of view, as if someone is talking to the reader. The words “I“, “me“, “my“, “we“, and “our“ are written in the first person. The writer is the subject of the writing. In contrast, the words “you” and “your” are in the second person. The reader is the subject of the writing. Finally, the words “she”, “he”, “it”, and “they” is in the third person in that someone else is being spoken about. In academic writing, you should generally use the third person.

Academic Writing and Objectivity

The voice you write in is dependent upon the type of writing you are engaged in. Although trends may be changing, you are often required to write in the third person.
Academic writing is formal in tone and is meant to be objective. This means that the focus is on the writing rather than the writer, so the voice is “this essay”, “this literature review” or “this report”.

Objectivity requires that the paper you are writing should not be a piece of personal opinion, “I think,” or, “We believe,” but substantiated by research, giving evidence from scholarly works you have read. You would therefore use phrases such as, “Research suggests that…”, “Smith and Jones (2010) argue that…” “I” and “We” disappear from academic writing.

Here are some examples…

Being Specific
Although personal pronouns such as she, he, it and they are writing in the third person, they can confuse the reader if used near the beginning of a sentence.

Try using a noun at the beginning instead:

  • The interviewees were… (rather than “they” were).

  • The chemical reaction took place straightaway… (rather than “it” took place).

  • The staff nurse ensured the wound was… (rather than “she” ensured).

Voice and Tense
Reports, essays and literature reviews tend to be written in the present tense, especially in the introductory sections, and could incorporate phrases such as:

  • This report analyses the…

  • This literature review provides an overview and critical analysis of…

  • Evidence, therefore, indicates that…

Write methodologies (how you did practical research), results and conclusions in the past tense:

  • The equipment was calibrated prior to the experiment.

  • Tension was applied to the bar and at x force it snapped.

  • The results were analysed by…