Monday, June 23, 2008

Powerful Points from "Style", Part 5

Here’s a commonly asked question about writing at work: Should I use I or we when writing in formal contexts such as academic papers, technical reports, scientific abstracts, or legal briefs? If you’d ask those who have been browbeaten by their bosses into avoiding personal pronouns, they’d have you believe that this concern is a matter of company policy or law.

It is not. Using personal pronouns is an issue of preference, plain and simple. Those who would argue to the contrary would have to explain why they use the just-as-personal pronouns you and they, as in the following sentences typical of scientific and technical writing:

  • Click on the link below to log in. (The you is understood here.)
  • Clients may call the help desk whenever they have questions.

Using personal pronouns is a sure way of assigning responsibility for actions and achieving clarity. On page 88 of Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, Joseph M. Williams notes, “The first person I and we appear in much scholarly prose. … When you are referring to some act of your own writing or thinking, the first person is entirely appropriate.”