I am writing my masters thesis. My instructor told me not to use "I, we, us, his, her, he, she" in the thesis anywhere. Are all these words prohibited in thesis writing?

I am writing my thesis in cloud security (computer science), specifically homomorphic encryption in the cloud.

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    It is indeed a common view in academic writing. There is a significant minority opposed to it. I personally prefer to write in whatever way happens to be the easiest to understand. – Superbest Jun 25 '16 at 22:04
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    @Superbest In certain fields, presumably. Try writing philosophy without using any personal pronouns! – cfr Jun 26 '16 at 0:44
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    Has your instructor seriously told you to avoid not only first-person pronouns (‘I/me’, ‘we/us’), but also third-person pronouns (‘he/him’, ‘she/her’, etc.)? That is absolutely insane, ludicrous, bonkers, ridiculous, and utterly useless advice. It is completely impossible to write any kind of even reasonably grammatical, readable, or normal English without using third-person pronouns. Such a requirement (if that is indeed what your advisor requires) ought to be enough to file a complaint against the advisor, or at least to consider switching advisors if possible/feasible. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 26 '16 at 12:56
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    You don't need standard guidelines for every field. Just look at the papers in your field. Indeed, how are you going to write a thesis without looking at papers? – David Richerby Jun 26 '16 at 13:18

These words are not necessarily prohibited, but there is an old norm in academic writing to avoid personal pronouns (the pronouns you listed). The reasoning behind the norm is that it makes for more objective writing, but it can also lead to the use of quite awkward passive voice phrasing. Because avoiding these pronouns does not necessarily make writing better, there is a counter-trend today which emphasizes writing clearly, even if that means you occasionally use "I" or "we".

Your supervisor will ultimately be one of the people evaluating your thesis, so it is important to take their preferences into account, but if you feel that writing without pronouns leads to too many awkward phrasings or otherwise makes your writing less clear, then I think it is worth pointing that out to your professor.

Note that this also tends to vary by discipline. In some fields, for example, the use of "we" to refer to the author (and collaborators or the readers) is entirely normal. In other fields, though, I have heard that it sounds pretentious. Try asking your colleagues and other mentors what they think the norms are in your field as well.

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    "In some fields, for example, the use of we' ... is entirely normal." Indeed. It's ubiquitous in theoretical computer science and pure mathematics, to the extent that not using it would look like bizarre circumlocution. To paraphrase somebody who may have been Churchill, the passive voice is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which ... er, I can't even work out how to write that sentence in the passive voice. – David Richerby Jun 25 '16 at 20:45
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    In Literature, too, one had better be able to refer to characters with "he", "she", "his" and "hers"... ;-P – Dronz Jun 25 '16 at 20:58
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    @DavidRicherby: Presumably "nonsense up with which should not be put". (Cf. the standard "nonsense that should not be put up with".) – ruakh Jun 25 '16 at 21:01
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    @ruakh Something like that, yeah. I kept trying to insert a "that" that wasn't ever going to work. – David Richerby Jun 26 '16 at 1:35
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    @DavidRicherby I am the sort of person up with this sort of nonsense will not be put by. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 26 '16 at 12:50

This is highly field dependent. Actually, in certain social fields such as women/gender studies, African American studies, ethnography, etc. it is required to use "I", to disclose any biases. "I am a 30 year old white male" etc.

I know advisers that would outright reject a thesis that doesn't explicitly use "I" in this manner (or at least something like "the author is ___").


The particulars vary incredibly by field and by journal. It's a fairly old practice to try and use passive form instead of active form, which appears to be what your instructor is suggesting. There is no "list" so much as the idea is to talk from the standpoint of what was being done (The experiment was conducted vs. I conducted the experiment). It has been suggested that the former passive form is harder to understand and the latter active form is preferred for clarity, but many academics (typically older professors, set in their ways) like the "traditional" passive style.

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    In my opinion, there is no reason to avoid those words in your field. However, as @dmh said, you should do what your instructor asks even if it doesn't make sense. Later, when you get to journal submission, the journal authorship guidelines will help you improve clarity and may encourage active voice. – Mekki MacAulay Jun 25 '16 at 18:36
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    In mathematics publications 'we' is used all the time. I recently read a new paper with 5 uses in the abstract, and 78 uses overall. – Forever Mozart Jun 25 '16 at 19:56
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    @vivek I suggest you look at some journal publications in your area. If they often use "we", there's no reason you shouldn't. I'd suggest that you discuss it with your professor, though -- don't just hand him your finished thesis with a note saying, "The passive voice was used throughout." – David Richerby Jun 25 '16 at 20:46
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    I read research paper fully homomorphic encryption over integers with shorter public keys in which author use ' we' often. – vivek Jun 26 '16 at 8:56
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    This 'passive form' business derives ultimately from Strunk & White. Unfortunately it isn't what they actually said. – user207421 Jun 27 '16 at 1:53

There are two potential problems in using we.

  • It can be ambiguous.
  • It can place undue emphasis on the researcher.

A sensible rule for we in science is that you can use it if and only if you mean "we, the author and the reader".

So you can't say "we did experiment X" in chemistry but you can say "we differentiate this function to obtain fact A" in a mathematical proof. The latter use does not suffer from the ambiguity and egotism of the first.

From the same rule it follows that you can never use I. Unless you really have to. This would be very rare in computer science.

Some people have lists banning the use of words like we. These people should be ignored unless they are your professor.

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