Download Adobe Reader
Tone Handbook impact image
Academic Tone
Print

Pronouns

TOPICS ON THIS PAGE

A LANGUAGE IN DECLINE

FIRST PERSON

Singular "I" °

Plural "We" °

Snobbery •

"Hobnobbery" •

SECOND PERSON

Generalized and Literal "You" °

Imperative Sentences °

THIRD PERSON

Pronoun Number Agreement °

Gender Indeterminate Antecedents °

Slashes •

Gender Identity v. Sexual Orientation •

Too Much Choice •

The "One" Answer •

The Plural Solution •

Variety With Consistency •

A LANGUAGE IN DECLINE

The debate over what pronouns writers can use to introduce and discuss their ideas has long since vexed students and teachers alike. Nowhere is this of greater importance than in the transition to writing in academic tone, because students have to "unlearn" their habits of pronoun use in the writing they did for their previous education. The most important rule to remember about academic writing is that, unless specifically requested to do otherwise, it aims to showcase the intellectual content, not the personality of the writer, behind it. For that reason, students are strongly encouraged to memorize the following practical guidelines about pronoun use in their college writing. And, since pronouns are best explained by their declension, this is the method that will be used to discuss pronouns in academic tone as well.

FIRST PERSON PRONOUNS

Singular

The first person singular pronouns are I, me, mine, myself, I'll, I've, and I'd, and their declension extends to the possessive adjective my.

The pronoun "I" is a first-person subjective personal pronoun. That may seem like a lot of "jargony" adjectives to describe what we all know the pronoun "I" does, but they also help to explain why the pronoun "I" can be a problem in academic writing.

Firstly, it should be made clear that using the pronoun "I" in formal and academic tone is NOT strictly forbidden, for there may, indeed, be occasions when you need to include yourself in your writing, describing relevant personal experiences. For the most part, though, academic writing prefers that writers extrapolate ideas from their personal experiences and leave out the narrative. Inexperienced academic writers, unused to developing more abstract and intellectual discussion, sometimes have great difficulty in breaking themselves of their habit of using examples in lieu of explanation and analysis. In fact, the single-most common error of paragraph development I encounter in all levels of college composition is the tendency to move directly from a topic assertion to an illustration, leaving the important responsibility of explanation and interpretation in the hands of the reader. We're taught from an early age that "assert and support" is the way to develop our ideas; however, "support" doesn't automatically mean "exemplify," much less "exemplify from personal experience." Academic prose should rank intellectual content above all else, and do so in an objective and authoritative voice. The subjective tone of a personal example runs contrary to that goal.

This, however, is not the most common reason writers resort to the pronoun "I." Rather, a lack of faith in their own right to offer opinions causes them to invoke qualifiers like the following:

I feel
I think
my opinion is
in my view
as I see it
I believe
it seems to me
when I consider it

These are wholly unnecessary in academic writing because your academic peers already accept that you are developing your topic from a subjective perspective—one that you will explain and support by way of a scholarly method. When you habitually draw attention to the fact that your writing is "only your opinion," it reads as a lack of confidence in your own ideas or in your abilities to discuss them persuasively.

Yet one more reason they are inappropriate is that they turn academic prose into narrative prose, using a first-person point of view. Suddenly, the reader is made aware of an unreliable narrator who's conveying the intellectual content as though it's part of a story. Again, academic readers demand that the intellectual content of the prose be showcased, and that the ego behind it not assert itself and cross the objective distance readers demand as a matter of protocol.

Plural

The first person plural pronouns are we, us, ours, ourselves, we'll, we've, and we'd, and their declension extends to the possessive adjective our.

The pronoun "we" used in formal tone is also referred to as the "Royal We." It derives from the concept of the body politic, in which a head of state assumes the identity of an entire country. (This is also an example of metonymy, as in "the Throne of England" or "the House always wins.")

When writers use the royal "we" in academic and formal prose, it creates one of two radically different impressions:

Snobbery

The royal "we" can sound snobbish and controlling when writers seem as though they've appointed themselves the head of the body politic and take charge of their readers' point of view. When used sparingly, it's innocuous enough, but when overused it creates a supremely egotistical and condescending voice, because there's no room for readers to disagree when the writer has already formed their opinion. Such a person in real life is often shunned as "overbearing."

"Hobnobbery"
"Hobnobbing" means socializing closely with people "not at your level": an underclassman hobnobbing with upperclassmen; a rich man hobnobbing with the poor; a liberal hobnobbing with conservatives; etc. Some writers use the pronoun "we" in an overly-familiar, hobnobbing way, to show that they're a regular member of that audience. It's considered a false way to ingratiate oneself to readers. When a politician whose background is "old money" rolls up his shirt sleeves and shares a boiler-maker with a blue-collar schmo at a local tavern, it often comes across as insincere: trying too hard to "rub elbows" with the hoi polloi. This is exactly what is meant by "hobnobbery," and why using the pronoun "we" can sometimes create a tone of insincerity.

The following example uses the pronoun "we" routinely, but does it communicate snobbery or "hobnobbery"? Does it talk down to you, as if you're too unsophisticated to get it, or does it dismiss you, as if the writer overbearingly assumes control of your thoughts?

When we consider the great many environmental concerns of the twenty-first century, we inevitably must hold ourselves accountable for our own actions in the daily running of our civilization. We may feel uncomfortable with that, but, in endeavoring to become a wiser and more broadminded people, we realize we must change our behaviors and become more mature about the environmental impact we make just by being alive.

SECOND PERSON PRONOUNS

The second person in pronoun declension is "you"; it includes your, you're, you've, you'll, you'd, and yours. The plural and singular forms are identical.

Explaining to you why it should not be used in formal tone will be one of the easiest things I have do on this page: just as the pronoun "we" can sound overly familiar in a condescending way, the pronoun "you" encroaches on the personal space of the readers in that the writer addresses them directly. It's as simple as that.

Breaking a habit of a lifetime, in which you've relied on the pronoun "you" in your everyday speech when you're not really addressing anyone in particular—that will be one of the hardest things ever asked of you as an academic writer.

Generalized and Literal "You"

Like the pronoun "I," there is occasion to use the literal "you" in certain kinds of college writing, especially persuasive-argumentative rhetoric. In academic discourse, however, this is rare. Besides, only the generalized "you" is actually an issue in formal tone: one shouldn't resort to using "you" in lieu of "one" (which comes with its own problems; see below). When you speak candidly with your friends and loved ones, the generalized meaning of the pronoun "you" is understood from your body language and context, but when it is written in a formal context, the reader takes it to mean "you" in a literal way: as a direct address. Sometimes, this can seem jarring or accusatory:

When you take street drugs, they affect every aspect of your life and hurt your relationships. You become a more selfish person, putting your next "high" above the needs of family and work, and eventually even above your own bodily needs.

For the majority of readers for whom the experience of taking street drugs is foreign, being included in this statement in any literal way forces a reader, not merely to empathize with the life of a drug addict, but admit to these behaviors as part of their personal history: "What do you mean, when I take street drugs? At what point did I become a selfish person? Does this writer have the right to make those observations about me?" It may improve your case to start "If you take street drugs . . . ," but even that crosses the objective distance with the reader. Here are several more examples that will likely elicit different reactions from different readers. Determine for yourself if you've been included, excluded, or accused by any of these:

As a young gay man, you have to learn how to quickly detect dangerously homophobic situations.

If you're not a young gay man, or even a gay man, does this sentence invite you to empathize with the concerns of young gay men, or does it give you permission to ignore the statement altogether?

The second trimester of pregnancy is when you start craving unusual foods.

If you're not a pregnant woman, or a woman at all, in what way should you relate to this statement?

For some men, trimming your chest hair and armpits is simply being polite.

If you're a woman, does the statement imply that some men expect you to trim your unwanted chest hair?

Some people complain that cigarette smoking makes your breath stink.

If you're a smoker, wouldn't you want to know which people have been complaining about your breath?!

Imperative Sentences

Students frequently forget that imperative sentences—commands—use the implicit second person pronoun as the subject of the sentence:

Be proud.
Treat people with respect and they will show respect.
Say "no" to drugs and "rise above" the influence.

None of these sentences has a particularly commanding tone. Because of that, it's simple to overlook the fact that they're all imperative sentences. Implicit or otherwise, they do exactly what any other sentence does in suggesting the generalized "you"; therefore, they do not belong in academic prose.



THIRD PERSON

The third person singular pronoun is he, she, it, and who, and their declined forms, including possessive adjectives.

The plural third person is they and its declined forms, them and theirs, which extends to the possessive adjective "their."

Third person pronouns are the most agreeable to academic tone because they imply an impersonal, more distanced point of view, whereas the first person and second person pronouns are frequently used together to establish an intimate dialogue. The simplicity of that notwithstanding, third person pronouns tend to confuse writers a good deal more in academic tone because they are plagued by agreement problems and gender confusion.

Pronoun Number Agreement
In casual writing and conversation, strict agreement between pronoun and antecedent, and between subject and verb, is not as crucial as it is on the page in academic tone. The reason is self-evident: "academic" means one claims to understand and follow the rules of grammar and usage, which is part and parcel with precision in one's writing. Agreement errors are imprecise grammar.

However, there are good reasons why writers sometimes commit these errors besides a poor command of grammar. When a plural pronoun does not agree with its singular antecedent, most often it is because the writer is trying to avoid sexism. The English language has only awkward solutions for pronouns whose antecedents are of an unknown gender, but pairing a plural third-person pronoun with a singular antecedent is not one of them.

Incorrect
If a student parks a car on campus, they have to buy a parking sticker.

The subject in this sentence is a “student” and the transitive verb is “parks,” so who the heck is “they”? A secret campus society of do-gooders compelled to buy a parking sticker every time a student parks a car? Doubtful. We all know implicitly the antecedent of “they” is “student,” but “they” is plural and “student” is singular, so they don't agree in number.

Correction
If a student parks a car on campus, she has to buy a parking sticker.
OR
Whenever students park their* cars on campus, they have to buy parking stickers.

(*Note: Plural pronouns very often demand that other nouns and possessive adjectives in the sentence also agree in number.)

Gender Indeterminate Antecedents

Slashes
Avoiding sexism in these circumstances is more difficult than it sounds, largely because, unlike other languages, the English language, itself, is fundamentally inadequate to the task of avoiding sexism, and this says more about who was originally in charge of establishing the grammar. Nevertheless, conscientious academic writers strive to demonstrate an awareness of the issue in their writing, and various solutions have been offered—some more appropriate for formal tone than others. The clumsiest solution devised is the repetitive use of the forward slash "/" (especially “s/he"):

s/he
her/his
him/her

While this may be a workable solution in an outline or in one's notes, in a work of academic prose in which you're striving to create a fluid writing style, these slashes stand out like cellophane tape binding the broken bridge of a pair of glasses: they do more to make you notice their inelegance than fix the problem.

Gender Identity versus Sexual Orientation
The antecedent's sexual orientation doesn't impact our choice of pronouns; it's an issue separate from gender identity. (For example, a woman doesn't immediately identify herself as “a man on the inside” because she's gay.) In the case of well-and-true hermaphrodites, however, or for individuals whose sexual identity differs from their gender assignment, you should use whichever pronouns are the most respectful of their identities. For some, a transgendered identity is just a stage persona and has no effect on which pronoun to use: RuPaul and Eddie Izzard, for instance, would be referred to as “he” and “him”; Marlene Dietrich would have been referenced by “she” regardless of the men's suits she wore on stage. Others, however, outwardly express gender as an inward reality: even before his period of sexual reassignment, Chastity Bono would have wished us to use the male pronoun, regardless of his female gender at birth, because he identified as male. These are decisions one must make on a case-by-case basis. If respect and dignity are your moral compass, not political correctness, you can't go wrong.

Too Much Choice
Replacing the forward slash with "or" does little else than turn the inelegance of an intrusive punctuation mark into the inelegance of an intrusive coordinating conjunction. The habitual choice the reader has to make becomes a stumbling block:

A student investigating options for his or her research project may use the library's reference resources to tailor his or her searches, making his or her research not only more enjoyable, but also more productive.

In just a few iterations of "his or her," the technique quickly becomes a punctilious nuisance to read, never mind pedantic in its tone. Changing to the pronoun "one" not only compounds the problem of tone, but it makes the grammar sound suspect as well, because "student" is such a definite antecedent, but "one" is so indefinite:

A student investigating options for one's research project may use the library's reference resources to tailor one's searches, making one's research not only more enjoyable, but also more productive.

The “One” Answer
Of course, "one" can be used effectively in moderation. However, when "one" turns up as the antecedent, writers can easily fall back on the same errors of number agreement they're trying to avoid in the first place:

One should strive to appreciate the historical contexts of the books they are reading. [The singular "One" doesn't agree with the plural "they.")

The Plural Solution
Although it's not a panacea to the problem, favoring plural antecedents with a third-person pronoun or an indefinite pronouns while at the same time avoiding unnecessary pronoun use altogether—this tends to be the most effective remedy:

Students investigating options for their research projects may use the library's reference resources to tailor searches, making research for some not only more enjoyable, but also more productive.

However, when the number agreement is not properly reconciled, and the antecedent remains singular, writers will sometimes "create" incongruent Frankenstein pronouns: themself; theirself; ourself. These are conspicuously ungrammatical and damage a reader's confidence in your ability to manage an academic voice in your writing, much less in your mastery of English grammar.

Variety, with Consistency
Yet another acceptable method is to vary the gender of the pronoun throughout the prose, so that a gender is chosen by the writer on a case-by-case basis, but collectively these choices don't suggest a sexist attitude:

A student investigating options for her research project may use the library's reference resources to tailor her searches, making her research not only more enjoyable, but also more productive. For any student whose work life limits his time to perform research, on-line access also provides him another means to tailor his research to his project needs.

 

In this example, using the feminine third person pronoun demonstrates an awareness of the sexism issue, while switching to the masculine pronoun in the next sentence assures readers that these pronouns reference gender-indeterminate antecedents.

Fortunately, pronoun adjustment can be added to your proofreading regimen and dealt with after you've composed your draft, when you can address these issues with consistency and revise sentences if necessary. If you're really stuck about which gender to use, choose your own. The world is pretty much fifty percent female and fifty percent male, so you can't go wrong.


EXERCISE

Identify the errors of tone in the following passage, based on the topics covered on this page:

The largest single group in this country to suffer the greatest increase in abuses and hate crimes is the disabled. A sight impaired person, for example, has a 45% chance—greater than any other group—of having theirself robbed in a public place. You even see an increase in more violent types of crime perpetrated against the handicapped, such as rape and assault with weapons. Unlike members of other groups which for them a consciousness about hate crimes has been raised in recent years, the average disabled individual feels that s/he is even less protected by his/her city and government authorities than they did just twenty-five years ago. Perhaps one needs to make oneself more proactively responsible for the rights of the disabled in one's community so that one may not some day fall victim, oneself, to the injustices that now befall your average handicapped neighbor. You never know: you could be next.

Last Updated: 11/04/2016

  • GCCCD
  • Grossmont
  • Cuyamaca
A Member of the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District