By Dr. Gary L Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Aversion to first-person writing is extremely commonplace in the halls of research and academia. But why are the most educated and intellectually astute among us so opposed to the word “I”?
The origins of these viewpoints are usually traceable to college coursework. Writing assignments that require students to write in third-person are virtually ubiquitous across disciplines and degree levels. Professors everywhere demand that their students eschew the word “I” entirely.
These prohibitions are so standard and absolute that it would be logical to assume they are probably codified in writing style guides. For example, most of my academic and research work has been focused in the social sciences, which generally subscribe to the American Psychological Association (APA) format as a writing style authority. And after 10 college degrees and 17 or so years of taking classes that disavow first-person writing, I was sure this policy had to have origins in the APA writing style manual itself.
So imagine my surprise when I discovered this was not at all the case. I recently investigated the matter, and I was shocked to learn that, not only does APA not proscribe the use of first-person, it is actually encouraged over the use of more awkward phrasing.
For example, suppose you’re writing a research paper on biology and you need to indicate that you reseached genetics. There are a couple of ways to do this. First, and most intuitively, you could simply use the first-person perspective and say “I researched genetics…”. Simple and effective, right? Yeah, it is. And as it turns out, the APA thinks so too.
However, plenty of college professors would be quick to shame you for using “I”. Instead, they might insist that you sidestep the intuitive first-person solution and opt for one of several other far-less-innate options.
One option is to use the “passive voice.” So instead of saying “I researched genetics,” an author would say “genetics were researched.” And this is grammatically correct, so it’s…well…fine. But for many people, it reads as clumsy and unnatural. So it is usually subordinate in preference to the active voice.