The answers to this question promote a view that the personal pronoun we is acceptable in an academic paper. But I did not see an answer there, or more generally on this site, that discourages the use of we. This question is different to the one mentioned above because it queries whether the word we should be used at all, not just to ask whether I or we is more appropriate.

The economics department at my university (UCT) discourages the use of personal pronouns in an essay – I was marked down in my essay for my use of the word we. At the end of my essay, I wrote

In conclusion, we note that the European sovereign debt crisis created uncertainty in the global financial market, and South Africa was one of many countries that dealt with this.

I decided to use we in my essay because I had grown accustomed to seeing it in mathematics textbooks, so I assumed that it was formal enough. But the economics department says that it is not formal enough.

Even though it seems acceptable to use we in some circles, it seems that it is a point of debate. What guidelines should I be using in order to make my decision about whether to use we or not?* Should I continue to use we as I see fit, except for economics essays? Or, should I apply this rule to all my academic essays (I also study public policy & administration)?

It would ostensibly be silly to have different writing styles emanating from the same person. The problem has not been brought up before, and I have used the word in a number of sociology essays in first year, and one public policy & administration essay in second year. In those essays, I used the word in the following ways.

In this section, we discuss motivations for why provincial government should be restructured.


Applying this model to provincial government, we can graph a U-shaped function of long-run average cost.


Approaching the question from the side of the teacher, we find that inequality can be caused via culturally insensitive teaching methods.

As a final clarification, I do prefer to use the word.

* Edit: Although it was not initially made clear, I have not been provided with style guides. However, I doubt that I would ask this question if I were provided with style guides. Saying that I should "follow the style guide" makes perfect sense, but doesn't really help me in my situation. I asked this question on academia.SE so that I could ask others to brainstorm ideas about how I could make the decision without a style guide (e.g. how were those rules formed in the first place?).

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    "It would ostensibly be silly to have different writing styles emanating from the same person." - why? You adapt your writing style according to the community you write for, the kind of document (general announcement, grant application, paper on finished results, ...), and the format of the publication (formal document, newsfeed announcement, press release, ...), anyway, do you not? – O. R. Mapper Nov 12 '15 at 12:09
  • "discourages the use of personal pronouns in an essay" I'm confused: did you mean the first person plural personal pronoun or any personal pronoun? If you can't use a personal pronoun, which pronoun would you use instead? Are you expected not to write any sentences that use the active voice? – Dan Romik Nov 12 '15 at 19:45
  • Please provide a couple of example sentences from your essay that have "we" in them. – aparente001 Nov 13 '15 at 3:48
  • @aparente001 I found that I actually only used the word once in my economics essay. It is now quoted in the question. – ahorn Nov 13 '15 at 10:53
  • @DanRomik they do not have a style guide, so I am just saying what I remember being told. I don't think they were that specific, but I think they don't want me to use any personal pronouns at all. That means that I should use words such as one and the author instead of personal pronouns as a way to make the tone more abstract. – ahorn Nov 13 '15 at 11:00

As already noted, there is usually little you can do against a styleguide, unless it’s blantantly against every convention. Be prepared to encounter styleguides with much weirder rules, in which, e.g., the punctuation at the end of this sentence is “correct.”

That being said, you can impose some guidelines. I am aware of the following occasions on which we (or I) can be used in an academic paper:

  1. To describe experiments or simulations you performed, e.g.:

    We transmogrified 500 apples and determined their contrafibularity.

  2. To refer to the results and other work from the same paper:

    In comparison to Smith’s transmogrificator, our method has the advantage that […]

  3. In derivations (most common in mathematics):

    Combining equations 23 and 42, we obtain: […]

  4. To summarize the paper in an abstract or introduction:

    We here present a new method to transmogrify bananas.


    In this review, we summarise recent advances in the transmogrification of fruit.

  5. In phrases such as:

    We note that […]

  6. In the acknowledgements:

    We thank Jane Doe for constructive comments.

Now, if you are writing an economics essay, you are probably not performing experiments or deriving new theories, which excludes reasons 1–3. In fact, most review papers use we only for reasons 4–6. Moreover, you likely do not have a summary in the style needed for reason 4. Using we only due to reason 5 would be so rare that it can be considered inconsistent style, in particular since it can usually be avoided easily.

Thus, I expect that the reason for which you were marked down was that you used we in a way that is not considered appropriate in academic writing at all, or because you used it only due to reason 5 only.

If you want a general guideline (if none is obviously imposed): If you describe experiments, derivations and similar of your own, use we. In the abstract or introduction of a review paper or something similar, you can use we. If you are doing neither, avoid using we except in the acknowledgements.

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    I think economics papers can easily have (social scientific) experiments, and there are plenty of theories and derivations (economics can be very mathematical). So I think all the points apply. – ahorn Nov 12 '15 at 18:28
  • @ahorn: Sure, but does this apply to essays too? – Wrzlprmft Nov 12 '15 at 18:45
  • True. There is less likely to be primary research in an undergraduate essay. – ahorn Nov 13 '15 at 11:03

You're doing a postgraduate degree, so you should have been taught / be about to be taught the basics of academic writing.

Here is one of the basic rules.

  1. Follow the style guide.

You've been told what the style guide for your coursework says about personal pronouns: it says don't use them. Follow it. Don't use personal pronouns in your coursework.

When you write for something with a different style guide, follow that style guide instead.

Different style guides have different rules. That's what makes them different.

No, it is not ostensibly silly to have different writing styles from the same person, assuming that person can comprehend and follow Rule 1, above.

  • Thanks for the advice. I have requested the style guide from the department, although I don't think they have one yet. I am an undergraduate. – ahorn Nov 12 '15 at 18:31

Styles differ by (sub-(sub-))discipline, so if you work in different disciplines you'll do a lot better if you adapt your style to that discipline. Its unfortunate, but I don't think there is a real solution to that.

As can be seen in the comments, it is also discipline specific whether you should use "we" or "I" if you are the only author, and opinions are quite strong on that. So here the same rule applies: you will be most successful in communicating what you want to communicate if you just follow the conventions of the discipline you are aiming at.

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    However, I think it is a real mistake to use the word "we" if there is only a single author. — The I/we distinction is also field-dependent. This is an issue of culture, not logic. The standard fiction in mathematics is that "we" means the author(s) and the readers, who after all are not merely letting the symbols wash over their eyes, but are actively working through the results with the paper as a guide. – JeffE Nov 12 '15 at 21:16
  • @JeffE I see what you mean, and edited the answer. In my discipline, this is interpreted as the author trying to delegate part of her or his responsibility to the reader. It is the task of the author, and only the author, to make her or his case. – Maarten Buis Nov 13 '15 at 8:05

I googled

style guide avoid personal pronoun -gender

(could someone edit that to center it or at least move the margin over a little bit, please?)

and found plenty of people recommending avoidance of I and we. Apparently, whoever graded your essay is one of those people.

Here's your we sentence again (thanks very much for posting it):

In conclusion, we note that the European sovereign debt crisis created uncertainty in the global financial market, and South Africa was one of many countries that dealt with this.

I'm a big believer in "rules are made to be broken," but in this case, even without your department's stuffy rule, I don't see a need to include the "we note that". I could sort of see it in an outline of the content of your article -- as a tour guide might describe the different places your article goes.

Look how much stronger a statement this is:

In conclusion, the European sovereign debt crisis created uncertainty in the global financial market, and South Africa was one of many countries that dealt with this.

By the way, there are a few other things you could do to increase the impact of your final sentence. By its location, it is already clear that it is the conclusion. So let's give "In conclusion" the axe.

"Dealt with this" is such a vague expression -- perhaps you could be more specific here about how South Africa dealt with the crisis? If your article doesn't get into that, but only shows how South Africa was affected by the crisis, then perhaps you could put in something about the particular way, or the particular degree to which, the country in your magnifying glass, South Africa, was affected.

What a shame, that you've got nasty people in your department penalizing you (in a vague, non-written form, yet) instead of giving you friendly edits.

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