I have always believed that sentences such as

This (paper/report/section/work/chapter/...) describes ...

should be avoided in scientific work, as they attribute an action (describing) to an inanimate object (e.g., a paper). I have therefore always opted for variations of

In this paper, we describe ...

I am now reviewing some student's work and would correct this (for him to learn, not to penalize him in any way). Looking around on the web, though, I cannot find any evidence that writing "this paper describes" or similar is wrong, and do not want to correct my student for not making a mistake. If it matters, neither the student nor I are native speakers of English.

Is there any rule?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jul 20, 2022 at 14:42
  • 4
    Related, if not duplicate: Is the personification of concepts or terms accepted in academic writing?
    – Wrzlprmft
    Jul 21, 2022 at 6:12
  • 1
    You might get other good answers to this question from different points of view if you posted it on the English Language and Usage subsite.
    – bta
    Jul 22, 2022 at 0:04
  • 10
    Where did you get the strange notion that inanimate objects cannot perform an action? Handcuffs restrain, water refreshes, food feeds, screens show, wind blows, the sun rises, the moon shines... and the list goes on... so why would a paper not describe?
    – user32882
    Jul 22, 2022 at 16:43
  • 1
    Action words, or verbs in the english language are not tied to their subject in that way. You can pretty much combine most verbs with most nouns as their subjects. Not sure what your native language is, but there is simply no such constraint in the English language.
    – user32882
    Jul 23, 2022 at 12:16

4 Answers 4


This is a matter of style, so I doubt there's a concrete rule. You could certainly use the APA Style & Grammar guide to support your point, specifically Section 4.11. However, this is more nuanced than apparent at first sight.

I will first state the relevant text/links, followed by some caveats and nuances which may be worth considering.

Quoting from this useful page (emphasis mine):

Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman entities, objects, or concepts. It results in ambiguity or misleading communication and thus should be avoided in APA style. However, common usage in academic writing includes some phrases such as "the results suggest" that, although examples of anthropomorphism, are acceptable for use because they do not lead to confusion.

And from here:

Correct usage: The theory addresses
Incorrect usage: The theory concludes
Rationale usage: A theory might address, indicate, or present, but researchers (not theories) conclude.

Now, the caveats. @Schmuddi has correctly pointed out that some examples on the first link directly address your specific point. These examples, all of which are considered applicable are :

This section addresses

This paper focuses on

The results suggest

The study found

The data provide evidence that

Thus, the specific example seems above board based on general perception as well as the APA guide.

A broader question is whether the APA guide is infallible; @DanRomik and @Wrzlprmft have correctly observed that the APA judgment on what constitutes anthropomorphism is somewhat arbitrary, and some examples contain a logical fallacy, such as :

The theory concludes

The fallacy is that a theory cannot logically conclude anything, so anthropomorphism is moot. A section, manuscript, article, or comment can. In these cases, one must decide if the usage is appropriate. (Of course conclude has two meanings, deduce and end, and we are talking about the former. It is possible for a theory to conclude a lecture.)

This brings us back to the beginning; this is a matter of style, so in ambiguous cases, one must apply one's own judgment. APA recommends rewriting when in doubt:

If you are unsure whether a construction constitutes anthropomorphism, try rewording the sentence or choosing a different verb.

My personal suggestion would be to do so if the rewritten sentence doesn't become clumsy, wordy, or otherwise unnatural. As a teacher, probably it is best to make students aware of these conventions and leave the choice to them.

  • 53
    I doubt any reader would object to "This paper describes..."
    – GEdgar
    Jul 20, 2022 at 12:37
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    @Oliver882 basically this: enago.com/academy/anthropomorphism-in-academic-writing/….
    – G. Gare
    Jul 20, 2022 at 12:46
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    Following your link, a sentence like "This paper focuses on" is acceptable. I won't annoy my student for this.
    – G. Gare
    Jul 20, 2022 at 13:44
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    I disagree with the quoted part. "The results suggest" is not anthropomorphism and it is completely fine, and not just because it does not lead to confusion. I agree with the apa.org page (linked from "here" in this answer), the enago.com page (in G. Gare's comment), and Dan Romik's answer.
    – Oliver882
    Jul 20, 2022 at 21:07
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    Urgh, the linked page seems to be distinguishing anthropomorphism by usage and ambiguity: “If a construction is in widespread use and its meaning is unambiguous, it is usually not anthropomorphic.” They essentially decided that all anthropomorphisms are bad and then declared some common anthropomorphisms false Scotsmen. How is “the theory addresses” any less an anthropomorphism than “the theory concludes”? (You are not wrong to cite and link this, though.)
    – Wrzlprmft
    Jul 21, 2022 at 6:20

Your premise that inanimate objects are not capable of action is false. Does the Earth not revolve around the sun? Do leaves not fall on the ground? Is the book “Crime and Punishment” not a thought-provoking work? And didn’t you yourself just write that certain sentences attribute actions to inanimate objects?

The types of phrasing you listed aren’t an example of anthropomorphism, despite what another answer says. It would be anthropomorphism to say that a report believes or feels something. Saying it describes something is simply a factual statement consistent with the dictionary definition of the verb “describe”.

  • 12
    This answer contains some good examples! Jul 20, 2022 at 20:40
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    Yes. But there are some borderline cases too, for example "The study concluded that ..." (from the waldenu.edu page linked to in the other answer).
    – Oliver882
    Jul 20, 2022 at 21:11
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    I think it sounds natural and would not raise any eyebrows, because we take study to mean the piece of work overall, including the researchers and their thought processes and their outputs. Perhaps I am wrong.
    – Oliver882
    Jul 20, 2022 at 22:58
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    @Wrzlprmft I don't think a verb has to count as anthropomorphising simply because an earlier meaning described a human action… For example, humans were directing their attention to tasks long before lenses were known, but that doesn't mean we are anthropomorphising a lens if we describe it as ‘focussing’ light rays. (So any decision about anthropomorphisation simply wouldn't affect it.)
    – gidds
    Jul 21, 2022 at 19:44
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    @gidds: Actually, focus in the sense of concentrate came later AFAICT, so it’s the opposite of an anthropomorphisation. Anyway, my point is exactly not to prescribe the “etymologically correct” usage (whatever it may be). Instead words taking on additional meaning through anthropomorphisations is just one of the ways language develops and gets richer, more efficient, etc. We cannot draw a clear line where a linguistic anthropomorphisation has become sufficiently established to cease to be a mental one – and we don’t need to. Rather we should focus on whether it’s clearly understandable.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Jul 22, 2022 at 17:20

This answer suggests writers should prefer inanimate actions.

I agree with Dan's answer, that a paper can describe or explain something. I'd even say it can conclude something, that is what the section called "Conclusions" does. None of these things suggest that the paper is a sentient entity, just that our use of language includes talking about inanimate objects doing things.

When writing a paper, there is actually a reason to prefer "This paper describes" over "In this paper, we describe"; the former is less verbose. Being less verbose has a few advantages;

  1. It respects the readers time.
  2. It's harder to make reading errors on shorter sentences. All else being equal, a shorter sentence is clearer.
  3. You or the publisher are more likely to spot all writing errors in a shorter text.
  • 4
    Plus, using "we" as subject just moves the ambiguity to the question who's we.
    – Nemo
    Jul 22, 2022 at 8:51

These are questions of taste more than questions of grammar. "This paper describes ..." isn't wrong, but it does put the paper rather than what's being described first. If possible, start with the result. The abstract might read:

29 and 2929 = 67 are both prime. We explore that curiosity and find connections to deep questions on the distribution of the primes: the prime number theorem, Dickson’s conjecture, and Zhang’s bounded prime gap theorem.

Then I prefer "We explore" to "This paper explores".

In the text, name the author where possible. Use

In [reference 6] Gauss proved ..

rather than

[Reference 6] proves ...

  • 2
    Out of pure curiosity, what is this 29_29 notation?
    – Anyon
    Jul 21, 2022 at 18:06
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    @Anyon I guess it's 29 interpreted in base 29. Jul 21, 2022 at 18:09
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    It mean the digits "29" in base 29, so 2 * 29 + 9 - 67. tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0025570X.2020.1704613 Jul 21, 2022 at 18:09
  • 29_29 is a mathematical syntax error, since 2 and 9 are not binary digits. I think you meant 29_{29}…
    – Dan Romik
    Jul 21, 2022 at 20:07
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    @DanRomik Yes, if this were real LaTeX. But it's academia. Jul 21, 2022 at 20:09

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