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The subject of velocity therefore also concerns itself with the capacity to process real-time data...

Would the above sentence be appropriate in an academic paper, specifically the use of the word concerns?

This is a habit I consistently notice in my writing when explaining concepts or subjects: I write as if the concept or subject is a person and then attribute words that are usually used in conjunction with human capacities, i.e., I personify.

I am not a native English speaker so my instinct may be wrong, however, I cannot remember that we were ever taught it is wrong to write in this way.

  • To me the sentence could be made much more concise and to the point, which would also remove any personification. I also have no idea what the sentence is supposed to mean as it stands, but may be lacking specific background. – Jon Custer Apr 17 at 14:22
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    Many would replace this with something like "subject...is concerned with". Passive voice. Some people don't like passive voice, though. – Buffy Apr 17 at 14:47
  • @Buffy - in various fields the passive voice is explicitly preferred in style manuals. The APS (American Physical Society) Style Manual is one. My high school English teachers never liked it, and my English professor mother would just sigh and shake her head at their comments. – Jon Custer Apr 17 at 14:58
  • @Buffy: Many would replace this with something like "subject...is concerned with". Passive voice. – You could replace concerned with an adjective that is not based on a participle (e.g., angry) and the sentence would still work. You can also not add a by clause here. That’s not passive voice. — Some people don't like passive voice, though. – Yes, but this is mostly based on a style guide written by descriptivists who could not distinguish passive from active voice (Strunk and White). Like any absolutes, this is overdoing it. The passive voice has its uses, though they are rare. – Wrzlprmft Apr 18 at 7:28
  • @JonCuster: The APS (American Physical Society) Style Manual is one. – No, it is not. – Wrzlprmft Apr 18 at 7:30
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I cannot comment on your specific example, because I do not know what it is supposed to communicate.

As with almost any writing device, I think personification is acceptable if:

  • it conveys some idea better or more concisely than alternatives,
  • the target audience can be expected to understand it,
  • there is no loss of precision when it is needed.

Now, the audience of academic writing consists to a considerable extent of non-native speakers, and precision is often paramount. Therefore, the above conditions constrain the use of personifications much stronger than for other types of writing.

Still, there are many cases where a personification is appropriate, for example when you already rigorously defined some concept and now want to explain it by other means. Many such personifications have found their way into scientific terminology or everyday language to the extent that we probably would not even perceive them as personifications anymore. For example, consider the usage of inherit in biology, computer science, and many other contexts. Also, I have used five personifications in this answer so far (mostly unintentionally).

Example 1

This is from my own academic writing and slightly shortened to reduce context dependence:

These incompatible results show that the model suffers from an inconsistency.

This is a personification: A scientific model cannot suffer. If I had been forbidden to use personifications, I would have written something like this instead:

These incompatible results show that the model is inconsistent, which is a considerable problem.

Since I consider this rather clunky, I do not expect anybody to misunderstand my use of suffer, and this is not a matter of definition, I opted for the personification here. (Now, to some of you “which is a considerable problem” may redundant here, but the paper’s target audience it is not, as evidenced by some of the feedback.)

Example 2

Again from my own writing and slightly modified:

SymEngine is aspiring to replace the pure Python core of the better-known SymPy.

SymEngine is a software package; it cannot aspire. Without personification I would have written something like:

SymEngine is developed with the goal that it replaces the pure Python core of the better-known SymPy.

I consider it as likely that somebody stumbles over this more complex sentence structure as over my use of aspire. For everybody else, the alternative does not add anything. Again this is a high-level description where precision is not of the essence.

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I consider the anthropomorphization of the topic of your research to be unscientific, and I discourage it.

Poor:

Reality doesn't care if you believe it.

Better:

Reality is unaffected by your beliefs.

If it is not science or not the topic of your research, then I might have no opinion.

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