Erin Kelly; Sara Humphreys; Natalie Boldt; and Nancy Ami
One of the most common “rules” many university students learned in high school is that they shouldn’t use “I” in academic writing—or, at least, that they should ask permission to do so. To explain why this isn’t really a rule, we need to talk a bit about how the term “voice” gets used in literary studies and then in the context of grammar.
Literary studies has some specialized terms for talking about who seems to be the narrator (the implied speaker) in a text. If that narrator is a single person speaking as themselves—using I pronouns and limited to an individual’s perspective—we say the text is written using a first-person singular narrative voice. First person means that the voice of the speaker is as close as possible to the things being spoken about, and singular means there is only one speaker. (If we had more than one speaker relating a common point of view—using the pronoun we to reflect a collective experience—that would be first-person plural narration.) First-person narration differs from third-person narration, the tendency to write about experience in a more distanced way by using he, she, and they pronouns thus creating a sense that the speaker is separated from the experience being described.
It is a common convention for academic writing to use third-person voice and, in turn, avoid I pronouns—because it is generally the case that third-person voice is seen as more formal. It is definitely the case that third-person voice can create an impression of objectivity, that the implied speaker (the author) of the text is unbiased. And since the readers of academic writing are usually most interested in the information and ideas being presented, they might not find a first-person speaker’s personal experiences directly relevant to the purpose and context of the text. For example, if your readers mostly want to hear your ideas about campus security, you don’t need to write “I conducted a lot of research to determine what I think about possible campus security reforms”—you can simply tell your readers what you think about campus security reforms. All this is why some teachers simply say that students shouldn’t use I (first-person pronouns) in academic writing.
But note that first-person voice isn’t necessarily informal any more than third-person voice is necessarily formal. You can be flashy, formal, or ornate while writing about your personal experience, or really casual and colloquial while describing something from a distance. More importantly, sometimes personal experience is directly relevant to a subject being discussed. (See the academic article by Riley-Mukavetz for a good example.) If you are writing an academic essay about attempts by scientists to eradicate the facial tumor disease affecting Tasmanian devils, it probably doesn’t make sense for you to share your personal experiences and thus use first-person voice. But if, for instance, you have been skiing competitively since you were a child and have seen friends and competitors struggling to recover from concussions caused by skiing accidents, it could be very effective for you to share your personal experiences (and use the pronoun I) in an academic essay arguing for a public health campaign to get skiers to wear helmets. A rule that tells you to always or never use “I” in your essays isn’t necessary – instead, you should think about what will be appropriate given the larger rhetorical situation.
Active and Passive Voice
You will also hear the word “voice” used by teachers in a way that links to the study of grammar—specifically references to active voice and passive voice. In this context, voice has something to do not with who is speaking but with verbs (the words in English sentences that communicate something about action) and the word order (English requires that words must be in a particular order to make sense). You may have been told that active voice is “good” and passive voice is “bad.” Neither of these statements are completely true, but before we get into a discussion of why that is so, let’s take a look at the grammar of the active and passive voice.
Briefly, if the subject of the sentence (the words before the verb) is the same as the person or thing doing the action, then the sentence is said to be in active voice.
“Kicked” is the action here. The girl is the one doing the kicking, and “The girl” happens to be the subject of the sentence. This is an example of active voice.
But we can make this information into a grammatically correct sentence that doesn’t work in the same way:
Here “was kicked” is the verb, the action part of the sentence, and the subject, the words that come before the verb, is “The soccer ball.” Who kicked the soccer ball? Still “the girl,” but now the person carrying out the action isn’t the same as the grammatical subject. This is an example of passive voice.
And sentences in the passive voice can work as sentences without including any information about the person or thing carrying out the action.
That’s a handy thing when who or what did the action isn’t as important as the action itself.
The solution was poured from beaker A into beaker B. [The solution is more important than who poured it.]
While I was studying in a cafe, my purse was stolen. [The thief is unknown.]
Remember when we said that the first person pronoun (“I”) is often discouraged in many fields of academic writing (such as in the sciences)? The passive voice is more common in these fields because the passive voice “hides” the person doing the research, experiment or whatever action is being discussed. However, the passive voice has its pitfalls and here’s why.
English is a language where the words need to be in a certain order. If you learn English as your first language then you cognitively process English in certain ways unconsciously (that is, you don’t even think about it). If the word order is off or mixed up, then you might feel confused because you can’t cognitively process English if it is out of order, so to speak. Put another way, English wants to be in the active voice. This is the most common word order in English:
- the subject first;
- the action the subject is doing next;
- and then the object of the sentence.
In order to change the order of the above sentence into the passive voice, the subject of the sentence has to be dislodged from its place at the beginning of the sentence and put where the object is. Then the object is placed first. The object, in turn, becomes the most important part of the sentence. It’s still the object, but its position where the subject was flags the object as important (cognitively).
Do you see a major difference between the sentence in the active voice and the sentence in the passive voice? The passive sentence requires a new grammatical construction to place the object in the subject’s place. Yes, there are technical grammatical terms to describe the grammatical construction of a passive sentence (the verb “to be” is an auxiliary verb that is used with a participle), but it really doesn’t matter if you know those terms. What we really want you to get from all of this is the difference between the active and passive voice, so you can make informed decisions about your writing.
Here’s another issue with using the passive voice: If you need more words to create the passive voice, then your reader needs to work that much harder to access your meaning. For example, let’s rewrite the previous sentence in the passive voice: “The passive voice is created by adding more words, which means that your meaning is much harder to access by the reader.” The sentence is grammatically correct, but it’s awkward. The sentence is harder to read.
This is all to say that the passive voice is not “bad” and recent research suggests that the passive voice does read as objective due to the distance created between the reader and the subject of the sentence. Your professor and your major as a whole may require that you write in the passive voice. However, you should be wary of complex, lengthy sentences in the passive voice. They can easily become awkward and more difficult to read than the active voice.
This potential awkwardness of the passive voice is where the third person is your friend. For example, instead of saying “Compound A was poured into an acid bath creating an explosion the likes of which have not been seen before.” You could write “The researcher poured… (and so on)” or you could choose the passive construction. The point is that you need to use voice consciously, making choices that help your reader to understand what you want to say. Think about the effects you want to create while keeping in mind your intended readers, the context for a piece of writing, expected conventions, and the subject matter under discussion.
Overall, as you make choices about your writing at the level of individual words and sentences, note that you are—whether you intend to or not—engaged in the work of experimenting with not just grammatical voice, but the stylistic qualities that make a writer’s work seem unique to that individual. In other words, your voice.
You might find that you favour a voice in your academic writing that is very refined and formal or that you prefer to use every opportunity you can to punch up a point with some colloquial language. You might decide in one piece of writing to strive for a voice that is clear and straightforward and in another for a voice that is playful and funny. Even as academic writing generally favours a more formal style and the “voice” of a scholarly expert, there is a lot of room within those parameters to create some stylistic effects that express who you are as a writer and as a person.
- Eugene Y. Chan and Sam J. Maglio, “The Voice of Cognition: Active and Passive Voice Influence Distance and Construal,” Personality and Psychology Bulletin 46, no. 4 (2020): 547-58, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0146167219867784. ↵