Using First, Second, and Third Person in Academic/Formal Writing

author By Mary Boies

Point of view in academic writing is the direction from which you will develop the arguments in your essay. Since there are different types of essays and different styles of points of view, you will have to make a choice depending on who your audience is and the reason for writing.

There are three different points of view: first person, second person, and third person. A first-person point of view is where you inject yourself into the essay. The second person point of view is where you direct the message to an audience, and the third person point of view is where you refer to the subject.

Figuring out which one to use can be challenging, especially when the instructor hasn't specified which one to use. Thanks to this guide, you will learn everything you should know about writing academic papers in the first and third-person perspectives or points of view.

First, Second, and Third Person Pronouns

Pronouns are words used instead of nouns to refer to specific and non-specific things. In other words, these are the different ways you can describe your point of view.

The first person represents the I/We perspective, the second person represents your perspective, and the third person represents he/she, it, and the perspectives.

The First-Person Perspective

This perspective refers to when we describe ourselves and what happened to us. Writing in the first person is popular in autobiographies, memoirs, and other types of nonfiction. You will know that a sentence is written in the first-person perspective when you see the following pronouns:

The first-person point of view becomes evident when reading books from the main character’s perspective. However, first-person writing is ineffective in writing essays where you must make objective points. Using it shows that your paper is subjective and likely to have biases. So, note when writing assignments, especially those that test your creative writing skills.

An example of a sentence in the first-person narrative is:

I went to school on Monday.

We went to school on Monday.

Use I, me, my, and mine in the singular and we, us, our, and us in the plural form.

In the first person narrative, you are basically inside the writer's mind, whereby they are writing about themselves. The writer of the paper/ document is also the speaker. You are, therefore, living through the experience of the writer.

The writer could be a protagonist or a peripheral character narrating the protagonist's experience. However, this first-person writing is limited to the experiences and awareness of the writer's actual state of events.

Essays that use the first person point of view include profile essays, narrative essays, informal essays, reflective essays, and admission essays such as scholarship essays, personal statements, and common App or Coalition App essays.

Any paper needing a personal opinion, personal experiences, or where you need to express your feelings can be written in the first person point of view.

Related Readings:

The benefit of Writing in the First Person Narrative

Apart from giving the reader a front seat to the story, a first-person narrative also:

Second Person Writing or Narrative

In the second person writing or the second person point of view, the writer targets the person (s) being addressed. The second persona narrative is unique because it expresses the writer's thoughts and experience in the "you" pronoun. This indicates that the reader is the main character in the story.

The biggest clue that a text is written in the second narrative is through the use of the following pronouns:

Second-person writing applies when giving advice or instructions to engage the reader. An example of a second narrative writing is how-to articles. While this type of narrative is ideal, it is not recommended for academic writing, and this is because it provides instructions to the audience, which can seem too casual.

Related Guide: How to write a process essay.

Third-Person Point of View

In third-person writing, the writers are not part of the story but instead share the story of different characters. The writer uses the name of a person or pronouns referring to people, e.g., doctors, teachers, artists, etc. It helps make an objective point focusing on the actual subject. Essays written in the third person are easy to read and comprehend. This type of point of view uses the following pronouns to describe individuals:

These pronouns are used to describe groups in the third person point of view:

Third-person academic writing examples are:

She taught herself how to read and write because no one else could

Everyone at the part brought their mobile phones

These pronouns are allowed in academic writing, but it's wise to consider gender biases. You can use a third-person limited perspective or point of view where you tell a story from the perspective of a character using the pronouns “he,” “she,” and “they” to describe their thoughts and action. This can mostly be done when writing a biography essay.

You can also use a third-person omniscient point of view, an open and very flexible point of view where the narrator is all-knowing and all-seeking. As a narrator, you can access the consciousness of a few or many characters. For example, you can use lines like “hoping from door-to-door was the angel of death, looking forward to pouncing on his next victim.”

Rules for using Pronouns in Academic and Formal Writing

Unlike other types of writing, academic writing should be objective and persuasive. If it is too subjective (having too much of your own thoughts), readers may regard it as too emotional rather than building your arguments based on sufficient evidence. It majorly has a formal tone. Therefore, do your best to avoid using personal pronouns and emotional language.

Remember the following rules the next time you write an academic paper.

Avoid Including First and Second Pronouns

First-person pronouns can weaken the ethos of your arguments. Any claims you make in academic writing should be supported by sufficient evidence. Using the "I" or "we" pronouns tells the reader that the arguments are your beliefs instead of substantial opinions.

While using first-person narrative is not accepted in scholarly papers, the impersonal tone is allowed in showing exact authorship.

The second pronoun creates two problems. First, it can exclude or possibly offend the reader. Many write things that just because they are using your pronouns, they are referring to the general public. However, the truth is they are only talking to a specific group. Take a look at the following example:

When a child is sick, you should take them to the hospital.

The problem with this sentence is that it has created an ambiguous you. Who is this person being addressed? are they the only person who should take the child to the hospital when sick? Also, the fact that the advice is directed to this "You" person, then it means that information is only relevant to someone who has a child.

If you revise the sentence to include all interested readers, it will be:

When a child is sick, parents should take them to the hospital.

To avoid overusing pronouns and repeating nouns, you need to remember all the different types of pronouns and how they are used in a sentence.

e.g., This is the book I am telling you about (this)

The Antecedent of a Pronoun Should Be Evident

Whenever you use a pronoun, ensure the antecedent is clear and evident. An antecedent is a noun the pronoun represents. At some point, you may want to replace the pronoun with a noun to remove vagueness. Take a look at the following examples,

After finishing the assignment and making the necessary corrections, it was submitted to the instructor.

It is unclear what "it" refers to in the above sentence.

The student submitted the assignment to the instructor after finishing and making all the necessary changes


After finishing the assignment and making all the necessary changes, the assignment was submitted to the instructor.

Using First-Person Pronouns in Academic Writing

Using first-person pronouns in academic writing is widely debated because of the different collegiate writing styles. For instance, APA and Harvard formatting styles allow and sometimes encourage using the first-person point of view, especially when describing the author's experiences.

APA style provides the following pointers for using first-person pronouns in academic writing.

The researcher discovered there were errors in the study, which the research had initially suspected.

A correct sentence would be,

I discovered that they were errors in the study, which I had initially suspected.


The test kits were distributed, and the results were compiled after being collected.

A correct sentence would be,

I distributed the test kits and collected and compiled the results.

Why You Shouldn't Use First-Person Pronouns

Other style guides discourage using these pronouns to keep attention to what is being said rather than the writer.

First-person pronouns can bore readers easily. Since the writer is at the center of every argument, the flow of ideas will be off.

At the same time, academic papers written in first person narrative are seen as a showoff, especially if you don't focus on scientific findings. In addition, citing sources written from the first point of view is not easy.

It is also easy to plagiarize text written in the first-person narrative when borrowing other people's ideas. Besides, there is a high likelihood of repetition and redundancy.

Rules for Using Personal Pronouns

Is it okay to use the first person in academic writing? The answer is yes, but not always.

Some academic disciplines offer leniency by allowing first-person narrative, while some prohibit their use by maintaining a neutral point.

Also, whenever you use first-person narrative, avoid overusing them, no matter the discipline or style guide. Only use them when required to improve the clarity of the text.

Exceptions of Using Pronouns in Academic Papers

You can use singular pronouns if you are writing about a situation with only you in the picture. If the document has been co-authored, use the plural pronouns.

You can also use a first-person narrative if you arrange the text to guide the readers through your chosen arguments. Examples,

In this guide, I will show you how...

We conclude that…

Please remember that the rules for using personal pronouns in academic writing keep changing. So it's important to ask your instructor which point of view to use before you begin writing the paper.

Words to Use instead of Personal Pronouns

The rules about using personal pronouns keep changing, so to be on the safe side, use the tips below:

Use the Third Person Pronouns


Instead, We treated the sick children


The doctor's treated the sick children

Change the Subject


We realized that it was wrong to leave the door open.


The realization was that it was wrong to leave the door open.

Change to Passive Voice


I took the bike to the shop for repairs


The bike was taken to the shop for repairs.

Editorial We

In the academic text, avoid using the pronoun "we," commonly referred to as "editorial we," to refer to people. "Editorial we "is widely used in newspapers when the writer speaks on behalf of other people as a way to express an opinion.

You must be clear and specific in academic writing about who you refer to. So avoid generalization.

One way to avoid this is by using nouns instead of pronouns. For example,

After testing the hypotheses, we found them to be true.

Instead, say,

The researchers tested the hypothesis and found it to be true.

Using Second-Person Pronouns in Academic Writing

The second-person point of view is prohibited in academic writing.

You can avoid this by,

For example,

To win in any game, you must prepare adequately.

To win in any game, one must prepare adequately.

You have to stand in line for a long time when there are discounted prices.


Customers must stand in line for a long time when there are discounted prices.

For example,

You may already know that the ice caps are melting.


Most people already know that the ice caps are melting.

Third-Person Academic Writing

In the past, using a masculine pronoun to refer to an unnamed man was okay. For instance, if a person is injured, he should go to the hospital. In the present, it is considered wrong to use this as it seems sexist.

You should avoid encouraging gender stereotypes by assigning particularly gendered pronouns in your text. E.g.

A pilot will fly his passengers.

A nurse will treat her patients.

In the first example, you are insinuating that only men can be pilots. And in the second example, you are saying that only females can be nurses. So instead, you can say,

Also, avoid using gender-based nouns such as watchman, fisherman, etc. And pronouns such as he and she. This style of writing was common in the past, but it is not allowed in the present.

In addition, avoid using he, she in the same sentence as it can make things unclear or result in inappropriate sentences. For example, when the doctor knows all the symptoms, he or she can know what to do.

Instead, consider using gender-neutral pronouns such as they, them, and there, especially for unknown and undetermined persons. So many style guides endorse the use of these pronouns.

Ensure You Maintain Consistency Throughout the Paper

Avoid switching back and forth in your paper when using either first or third pronouns in your text. Maintaining consistency in your paper makes it readable.

How to Maintain a Formal Voice in the Third Person

For every style essay, it is vital to maintain a formal, third-person voice in the following ways:

1. Don't Use First Person Pronouns

Using these pronouns can make your text seem too wordy, give it an informal tone and make you seem less confident. For example, instead of

I think this paper is plagiarized


This paper is plagiarized

2. Don't Address the Writer as "You"

Addressing your audience using a second-person point of view makes your work look informal and probably brings assumptions that it isn't true.

3. Avoid Contractions in Your Paper

Contractions are made by shortened words that use apostrophes such as a can't, wouldn't, shouldn't, etc. Instead of these, use the longer version to make your text more formal. E.g., cannot, would not, should not.

4. Don't Use Colloquialisms or Slang

Colloquialism and slang are allowed in less formal writing but not scholarly articles. Such words include “yeah,” “kinda,” “freak out,” etc. Even though these words are vivid and highly expressive, they express an informal tone.

Should You Write in the First or Third Person?

A lot goes into essay writing to come up with a perfect paper. Besides all the preparation, you have to select the right point of view to use in the paper. The third point of view is recommended in academic essays, assignments, and research papers, but there are instances where you are allowed to use first-person points of view. Ask your instructor if you are unsure which pronouns to use in your paper.

FAQs about Using “I” in an Essay

Can you use the first person in a research paper?

Yes. You can use “I” and “we” pronouns in a research paper in the following sections, abstracts, introduction, discussion, conclusions, and other journals.

Which phase of the writing strategy do students decide on a topic or an angle?

Prewriting stage. The writing process involves different stages, including prewriting, drafting, revising, and proofreading/editing. The prewriting stage is where you generate ideas to determine your essay's topic and your target audience's point of view.

What person should an essay be written in?

An academic essay should be written in the third person. However, there are certain instances where it is okay to use the first-person point of view.

Can you use the first person in MLA?

First-person pronouns are not permitted when writing in MLA format like second-person pronouns. So you should stick to the third-person point of view at all times.

What are third-person research papers?

Third-person research papers are written in the third person using pronouns like they, them, everyone, etc. This is because the intent of these papers is scholarly (objective).

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