Using first, second and third person, and impersonal voice

First, second and third person, and impersonal voice are the perspectives or points of view of your writing. Different perspectives are appropriate for different types of writing.

This section covers:

First person

‘First person’ is when you are writing from your own point of view (as an individual or part of a group), using I, we, my and our:

I absolutely love shortbread.

We are going to start our day early to beat the traffic.

Riding my bike makes me happy.

We enjoyed our holiday.

First-person singular (I) is usually direct, personal and informal. Using the first person encourages the use of the active voice, making clear whose actions, beliefs and ideas are being described.

First person is most commonly used in:

  • personal correspondence
  • communications materials
  • autobiographies.

First-person plural (we) is often used to express the opinion of a group or to include the audience in the writer’s perspective. It may be used in business or government writing to express the corporate view.

In the past, first person was not used in business, government or academic writing. But it is increasingly accepted – and indeed encouraged – because it personalises content and makes it clear who is speaking or acting. See Moving away from the impersonal for further discussion of this issue.

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Second person

‘Second person’ is when you address the audience directly, using you and your:

You should try to eat a wide variety of foods.

You are the best person for the job.

After removing the cake from the oven, you should let it cool before icing.

Your wish is my command.

Second person is direct, personal and informal, and is often a good way to talk with and engage audiences. Addressing the audience directly can also help you to concentrate on what the reader wants to know rather than what you want to say.

Second person is most commonly used in:

  • advertising
  • other marketing material
  • instructions.
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Third person

‘Third person’ is when you write from the point of view of an observer, using he (his, him), she (her), it (its), they (their, them), or the name of the actor in the sentence:

He was interested in the painting course.

Sofia met her mother on the steps.

The group collected their bags before entering the hotel.

Simon conducted studies on the function of the protein.

Third-person writing is detached from both the writer and readers. It is impersonal even when it refers to people. It can give the impression of being more authoritative and objective than first- or second-person writing.

Third person is most commonly used in:

  • reports
  • essays
  • journalism.
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The impersonal voice comes across in writing that avoids referring to the people involved. An impersonal voice is created when neither the writer nor the reader(s) are mentioned by first- or second-person pronouns in the text. The only pronouns used are it, they, their and them:

It was decided to install a ramp.

The milk was added to the mixture.

It was thought that children should be seen and not heard.

Studies were conducted on the function of the protein.

An impersonal voice is used in formal writing, and can be seen as more professional and objective.

The impersonal is most commonly used in:

  • journal articles
  • government reports
  • policies.

The impersonal voice has traditionally been used in academic and government writing, but this is shifting.

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Moving away from the impersonal

The impersonal voice, which never refers to the writer or reader, has been preferred in formal writing – especially in academic and government fields – because it was considered more professional and objective.

However, this approach is now declining in favour of putting the participants back in, in either the first or third person:

The government policy on land clearing seems outdated. [impersonal]
We consider the government’s policy on land clearing outdated. [first person]
To most Australians, the government’s policy on land clearing is outdated. [third person]

In science and other academic areas, the use of an impersonal voice and passive constructions takes the researcher out of the process; this was standard in scientific writing. However, the first-person active voice is now increasingly common:

Studies were conducted on the function of the protein. [impersonal]
We conducted studies on the function of the protein. [first person]

Most academic journals now accept, and even prefer, first-person active constructions:

Did you know? Journals that ask authors to use a first-person active voice include Nature:
Nature journals prefer authors to write in the active voice (“we performed the experiment ...”) as experience has shown that readers find concepts and results to be conveyed more clearly if written directly.’

A typical research report or journal article uses a mixture of the first person and impersonal constructions. First person works well for things that are specific to the activity (eg personnel, equipment, locations, techniques), and impersonal works well for the objective results (outcomes that should not depend on who did what):

We used a Smith and Wu Model 235B desktop beamline at the University of XYZ to determine the crystal structure of the protein. [first person] The protein structure was found to be  … [impersonal]

Benefits of not using an impersonal voice

Use of first person often avoids ambiguity about who did what, especially when the document refers to the authors’ own work as well as that of others:

These results were duplicated in Jones et al (2012) … An echocardiogram was also used to verify that the patients had atrial fibrillation. [Who reported the additional echocardiogram? Was it the researchers of this paper or Jones et al?]
These results were duplicated in Jones et al (2012) … We have since used an echocardiogram to verify that the patients had atrial fibrillation.

Using a first-person active construction also removes confusion associated with broad claims and statements:

It is believed that … [Does this mean ‘I believe that …’ or ‘it is a generally held belief that …’?]

Because use of impersonal voice and passive constructions removes the actor, such language can be used to avoid taking responsibility for messages that are unlikely to be received well:

It was decided to close the school. [impersonal]
We decided to close the school. [first person]

Government and other bureaucratic writing is moving away from the impersonal voice to add the actor back in, using either first or third person:

It was assumed that the road would be upgraded within the year. [impersonal]
We assumed that the road would be upgraded within the year. [first person]
Randwick Council had assumed that the road would be upgraded within the year. [third person]

A common area where the impersonal voice is unhelpful is writing recommendations. The impersonal voice is sometimes used because no-one has decided who will actually do what or because the writer does not want to indicate responsibility for an action.  However, recommendations written in this way are unlikely to be implemented, and it is always better to indicate who is responsible:

It is recommended [by whom?] that the facility be upgraded [by whom?].
The Dean has recommended that the facility be upgraded by the users.

A review of the procedures should be conducted [by whom?].
The procedures should be reviewed by the executive.

See Balancing active and passive voice for more information on avoiding impersonal constructions, and Using abstract nouns and avoiding indirect constructions for further strengthening your writing.

Tip. Use a combination of perspectives, and active and passive language to create a clear and engaging text, as shown in this extract from Nature:

Nature receives approximately 10,000 papers every year and our editors reject about 60% of them without review. (Since the journal’s launch in 1869, Nature’s editors have been the only arbiters of what it publishes.) The papers that survive beyond that initial threshold of editorial interest are submitted to our traditional process of assessment, in which two or more referees chosen by the editors are asked to comment anonymously and confidentially. Editors then consider the comments and proceed with rejection, encouragement or acceptance. In the end we publish about 7% of our submissions.

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