111

Which personal pronoun is appropriate in single-author papers - 'I' or 'we'? Could the use of 'I' be considered egotistical? Or will the use of 'we' be considered to be grammatically incorrect?

100

Very rarely is 'I' used in scholarly writing (at least in math and the sciences). A much more common choice is 'we', as in "the author and the reader". For example: "We examine the case when..."

One exception to this rule is if you're writing a memoir or some other sort of "personal piece" for which the identity of the author is particularly relevant.

Now let me quote Paul Halmos (Section 12 of "How to Write Mathematics"):

One aspect of expository style that frequently bothers beginning authors is the use of the editorial "we", as opposed to the singular "I", or the neutral "one". It is in matters like this that common sense is most important. For what it's worth, I present here my recommendation.

Since the best expository style is the least obtrusive one, I tend nowadays to prefer the neutral approach. That does not mean using "one" often, or ever; sentences like "one has thus proved that..." are awful. It does mean the complete avoidance of the first person pronouns in either singular or plural. "Since p, it follows that q." "This implies p." "An application of p to q yields r." Most (all ?) mathematical writing is (should be ?) factual; simple declarative statements are the best for communicating facts.

A frequently effective time-saving device is the use of the imperative. "To find p, multiply q by r." "Given p, put q equal to r."...

There is nothing wrong with the editorial "we", but if you like it, do not misuse it. Let "we" mean "the author and the reader" (or "the lecturer and the audience"). Thus, it is fine to say "Using Lemma 2 we can generalize Theorem 1", or "Lemma 3 gives us a technique for proving Theorem 4". It is not good to say "Our work on this result was done in 1969" (unless the voice is that of two authors, or more, speaking in unison), and "We thank our wife for her help with the typing" is always bad.

The use of "I", and especially its overuse, sometimes has a repellent effect, as arrogance or ex-cathedra preaching, and, for that reason, I like to avoid it whenever possible. In short notes, obviously in personal historical remarks, and perhaps, in essays such as this, it has its place.

You can download the pdf of Halmos' complete essay.

  • 2
    +1 for the Halmos quote. Your example ("we let...") is certainly a place where I wouldn't use a pronoun at all! – David Ketcheson Aug 23 '12 at 6:04
  • 1
    @scaaahu Without reading the specific example, I can't be sure, but... I would liken "We call something X" to saying "this is how it's done" descriptive of those in the know and prescriptive for those new to the area. – Dan C Aug 23 '12 at 6:57
  • 10
    I can see the value of Halmos' advice in the specific field of mathematics, where the entire content of a paper is composed of incontrovertible facts. However, in the natural sciences things are rarely so clear-cut, and in the end what most papers express are not facts but opinions. These are highly informed opinions based on evidence, but they are opinions nevertheless. In my view it's counterproductive and misleading to try and avoid any mention of whose opinions they are, so I think it's very appropriate to introduce such a paper with "I argue that...". – Nathaniel Aug 26 '12 at 10:28
  • 16
    Additionally, outside of mathematics you have to deal with descriptions of experiments. It's a question of style whether to say "a device was constructed", "we constructed a device", "I constructed a device". Personally, I find the first incredibly awkward (constructed by whom?), the second a bit jarring (wait, was there someone else involved?) and the third perfectly fine. – Nathaniel Aug 26 '12 at 10:32
  • 3
    I, for one, find the idea of using 'we' in a single-author essay to be utterly bizarre. Authors should take responsibility for their own work and leave the readers out of it. – Ubiquitous May 12 '15 at 15:06
30

Authorial "we" is quite common, even in single author papers (at least in math and related fields). The explanation I've heard is that it should be read as both the writer and the reader (as in "we now prove...", meaning that we two shall now prove it together). Some people find it awkward, and insist on "I", but this is unusual (and I've heard of referees demanding "we"). In cases where "we" is truly nonsensical (for instance, introducing a list of people being thanked), people who avoid "I" either find an alternate phrasing or refer to themselves in the third person ("The author would like to thank...").

22

In single-author papers, I think consistency trumps any particular rule or style. As the Haimos essay suggests, you can achieve whatever style you choose; you just need to make sure that it makes sense.

For instance, don't switch back and forth between "I" and "we," or between active and passive constructions too close to one another. Make the use of "I" and "we" clear to indicate active participation in the project (for instance, for assumptions or approximations made, you choose that—unless it's something everybody does).

  • 19
    I agree with "don't switch back and forth between 'I' and 'we'", but I disagree with your comparison of that with "[don't switch back and forth between] active and passive constructions". There are contexts where habitual use of I makes sense. I know of no analogous contexts for repeated use of passive constructions. As a general rule, writing extensively in the passive voice is just bad writing. – Dan C Aug 23 '12 at 15:20
  • +1, "I" or "We", it's your call, but be consistent (and also use the present tense, but this is another story). – Sylvain Peyronnet Aug 23 '12 at 17:08
  • The passive voice is useful for switching the emphasis. But what I meant was don't go "We modeled X. This was done to study Y. We will not look at Z further. Z was not modeled because A." and so on. – aeismail Aug 23 '12 at 20:15
  • 2
    "We modeled X to study Y. We did not model Z because A." – JeffE Aug 24 '12 at 12:53
  • 4
    @aeismail: I honestly can't find anything objectionable in your proposed counterexample! – Aant Aug 26 '12 at 23:49
6

When not faced with a journal/publisher specific style, my go to style guide is APA. I really like the APA style blog. In this post they explain:

If you’re writing a paper alone, use I as your pronoun. If you have coauthors, use we.

They go on to lash out against the editorial we

However, avoid using we to refer to broader sets of people—researchers, students, psychologists, Americans, people in general, or even all of humanity—without specifying who you mean (a practice called using the editorial “we”). This can introduce ambiguity into your writing.

There is also another related post about using we and avoiding ambiguity.

4

There are already two good answers for this entry, one is also accepted. But I'm going to give my two cent answer anyway...

This is what I learned from a workshop on writing scientific texts. Basically, my suggestion would be avoid using either "we" or "I" in the whole paper, except the "Experiment and results" section1. The idea is that by using passive form in the text, you avoid both issues related to being egotistical or ungrammatical.

Then in the "Experiment and results" you use "We"2. Why not using passive form in "Experiment" section? Well, you could but the idea here is that these results can be produced by everyone, including readers. So "we" is not referring to author(s), but to author(s) and readers.


1. This might not be the case in fields that papers do not have an experimental section.
2. Once could object that this will result in inconstancy in paper which is a valid objection.

  • Why the factually incorrect "we" in the experiments and results sections? This is nonsense. The "we" should be used iff it can refer to author and reader. – Walter Jul 6 '17 at 9:25
0

The "royal we" works

The "royal we" suggests a hypothetical population of peers who hold some position. This hypothetical population may-or-may-not include the reader, at the reader's option. And since it's a hypothetical population with a subjective number of members, "we" is appropriate.

Even if you're talking about a real-world action that you did to perform a specific experimental step, it's still accurate to describe the hypothetical population as having performed that action.

This approach has a few advantages:

  1. It's easier for readers to put themselves into your shoes as a member of the population engaging in the study.

  2. It avoids distracting the reader with inconsistent pronouns for the authors across papers.

0

It's field-dependent. English teachers told me the following:

  • In STEM you use "we" for "the reader and the author(s)", regardless of how many authors you have. (Note that the "royal we" would be the wrong term, since the authors don't wish to sound as ostentatious in "we, the king of ...".)

  • In languages, you use "I" if you are the sole author.

  • 1
    That really is bad advice. "We studied X" does not mean that the reader studied it. – aeismail Jan 6 '18 at 22:57
  • 4
    @aeismail That really is a bad comment. In STEM, "we studied X" in the conclusion of a paper does mean that the reader studied X while reading the paper. In languages, "we" may mean sound pompous, may or may not involve the reader, or be completely misunderstood. – user85520 Jan 6 '18 at 23:43
  • And what does It mean in the introduction? It shouldn’t mean one thing in the introduction and another somewhere else. – aeismail Jan 7 '18 at 1:21
  • 2
    Sorry, "we" does not universally mean "reader and the author." There are too many usages where that definition simply doesn't work: "We added reagent X." "We measured the growth of species Y." "We observed that Y grew with temperature." The reader did none of those. – aeismail Jan 7 '18 at 2:14
  • 1
    It would be more accurate to say that in mathematics (and related areas like theoretical computer science), one uses "we" for "the author and the reader(s)". There is no such area as "STEM". – JeffE Jan 7 '18 at 4:27

protected by Alexandros Dec 14 '17 at 19:24

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.