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Proposal Essays In Third Person

 A Definitive Guide to Using Perspective in Academic, Business, and Fiction

Is it OK to use first person (I/my/we/our) in a research paper or job application? Is all formal writing done in third person (he/she/they/one)? Why does the teacher keep crossing out second person (you/your) in student essays?

The issue here is perspective. First person is direct and personal. Second person is aimed at the audience, as in advertising (“You should buy this car now!”), or is quite informal, as in e-mails to a friend (“So, you know how it is when you don’t have any money?”). Third person doesn’t target anyone, and so it’s the most distant and universal.

It’s pretty easy to avoid second person in formal writing, so the main source of confusion comes from whether to use first or third person.

 Academic Writing

The battle between first and third, at least in academia, stems from the tradition to favor third person in formal writing because it was considered more modest, professional, and (above all) objective. Scientists thought it was better to favor the research, not the researcher, so “I conducted a study on” was changed to “the researcher conducted a study on.”

This business of having to use third person, however, can result in imprecise language and, worse, ambiguity. Most academic styles now recommend first person, with APA leading the way.

Take the following:

“A study was conducted on animals. The researchers utilized a longitudinal study. This paper will examine the mating habits of the fennec fox.”

What at first seems like a nice formal start to a paper is actually quite ambiguous. Regarding the first sentence: what study? Conducted by whom? This passive voice is too imprecise.

The second sentence uses third person, but if your paper is talking about other studies and sources, then you might confuse your reader. Is this your term you’re talking about, or one of the past researchers?

The third sentence turns the paper into the researcher. A paper cannot examine. It’s not alive. Only you, the writer, can examine anything. In this situation, the truly clear sentence is, “In this paper, I will examine . . .”

For these reasons and more, first person is now more often being recommended. Of the “big three” (APA, Chicago, MLA) style guides, APA urges first person. The Chicago Manual of Style is also in favor and says under 5.220 (16th ed.), “When you need the first-person singular, use it. It’s not immodest to use it; it’s superstitious not to.”

MLA (used for the humanities) has skirted the issue, but seems to prefer the formality of third person. It doesn't like self-aware statements like, "I am going to say in this paper..." However, as long as the instructor or client does not mind, MLA finds first person acceptable when necessary.

 Fiction

The question of what perspective to use in a story or novel is a personal one. There are no rules. Generally, writers are recommended to use third person when they’re just starting out because it’s a bit easier to get right. With third person, you can write in a detached, generic way, and when you write fiction in first person, it’s exceedingly real and present. Everyone has a different (and distinct) personality, and that personality leaps out when you write in first. In first person, little mistakes and breaks in personality really stand out for the reader.

It is not accepted in mainstream fiction to mix first person and third person.

Don’t write fiction in second person. Please.

 Autobiographies/Nonfiction

Use first person for such situations as autobiographies (unless you’re Donald Trump), but for most non-fiction work, it’s best to stay detached. Use third person.

 Journalism

AP style for journalism and marketing is strict about not using first person to refer to oneself. Stick to third, try to avoid pronouns, and reserve first person for direct quotes in interviews.

 Resumes

Don’t refer to yourself in the third person in resumes. Just as in life (unless you’re Trump) you wouldn’t say, “John develops synergistic platitudes,” when you’re John. In a resume, just assume the first person is understood. Under current job duties, say “Develop synergetic programs,” not “Develops.”

Business

With business, there are no hard and fast rules. Gear your writing to your purpose and what level of formality you think is appropriate. Perspective can increase and decrease that level. For example, look at this formal sentence:

“Microsoft is looking to expand into new areas. It aims to attract talented new people.”

Formally, organizations use “it,” not “they” or “we.”

However, some people might say that looks too stiff, so look at this more easy-going and personal version:

“Microsoft is looking to expand into new areas. We are looking to attract talented new people.”

Second person can also be useful in business writing, especially when giving orders or advice:

“Microsoft is looking to expand into new areas. Be sure to attract talented new people.”

Just remember that choosing your person-perspective has real consequences. Be careful, and good luck.

 Nick S.

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First vs. third person

Pronouns are a set of words that replace nouns. They can be used to make your work less complicated and less repetitive. Examples of pronouns include:

  • First person: I, we, me, us
  • Second person: you
  • Third person: he, she, it, they, him, her, them

For some assignments, it is appropriate to use the first person. However, for other assignments the third person is preferred. Sometimes a mixture of the first and third person should be used for different purposes. So, check your assignment guidelines for each assignment, as it will differ for different assignment types, different style guides, and different disciplines. If you are unsure, then check with your course coordinator.

First person preference

The first person can be used to make writing more concise when providing personal reflection, stating a position, or outlining the structure of an assignment.

Some disciplines/lecturers allow or encourage the use of first or second person ('I', 'we', 'you', etc.). The use of the first person is also recommended/allowed in some style guides. For example, in the American Psychological Association Publication Manual (6th ed.) it is recommended that authors use the first person to avoid ambiguity and anthropomorphism.

How to use the first person

The following examples illustrate some ways you can use the first person in your writing.

Example 1: Structuring an essay

In this essay, I will argue that gender and ethnicity factors affect buying behaviours.

I will argue that gender and ethnicity factors affect buying behaviours.

The essay will examine how gender and ethnicity factors affect buying behaviour.

Example 2: Describing research you conducted

I found that...

We informed participants that...

The authors informed participants that...

Example 3: Describing research you conducted

We compared...

Our comparison of...

The table compared...

Avoiding subjectivity using the first person

Academic training requires students to support the claims they make by providing solid arguments and/or evidence. So, even when the first person is used in academic writing it can, and usually should, still sound objective.

How to sound objective using the first person when making a claim or stating an argument

The following examples illustrate ways to use the first person in your writing while sounding objective (i.e. making it clear that you are not just expressing an unsupported personal view and that you are concerned about facts and/or reasons rather than being influenced by personal feelings or biases).

I will argue that assisting developing countries to grow crops, such as tobacco and opium poppies, is not in their best long-term interests.

I think that assisting developing countries to grow crops, such as tobacco and opium poppies, is not in their best long-term interests.

I feel that assisting developing countries to grow crops, such as tobacco and opium poppies, is not in their best long-term interests.

The evidence I presented above indicates that paying benefits to high school students encourages them to stay at school when they would be better off in paid employment.

In my opinion, paying benefits to high-school students encourages them to stay at school when they would be better off in paid employment.

I believe that paying benefits to high-school students encourages them to stay at school when they would be better off in paid employment.

I have presented reasons why educationalists need training in observing pupil behaviour to pick up on unexpressed needs.

As a teacher, I believe teachers need training in observing pupil behaviour to pick up on unexpressed needs.

How to use the first person in reflective writing

Reflective writing relies on personal experience, so it is necessary to use the first person.

The following examples illustrate some ways to use the first person in Reflective writing.

I found this experience positive...

I witnessed...

I succeeded in...

I achieved my goal...

I could have reacted differently in this situation...

Third person preference

Some disciplines/lecturers discourage the use of the first or second person ('I', 'we', 'you', etc.) and prefer the use of the third person because it makes writing sound objective.

How to avoid the first person

The following examples illustrate ways to write without using the first person.

Example 1: Structuring the essay

How gender and ethnicity factors affect buying behaviours will be examined.

Careful examination of gender and ethnicity factors shows how these affect buying behaviour.

In this essay, I will examine how gender and ethnicity factors affect buying behaviours.

Example 2: Making a claim or stating an argument

Assisting developing countries to grow crops such as tobacco and opium poppies is not in their best long-term interests.

I think that assisting developing countries to grow crops such as tobacco and opium poppies is not in their best long-term interests.

Example 3: Making a claim or stating an argument

Paying benefits to high school students encourages them to stay at school when they would be better off in paid employment.

In my opinion, paying benefits to high-school students encourages them to stay at school when they would be better off in paid employment.

Example 4: Making a claim or stating an argument

Educationalists need training in observing pupil behaviour to pick up on unexpressed needs.

As a teacher, I believe teachers need training in observing pupil behaviour to pick up on unexpressed needs.

Example 5: Describing research you conducted

It was found that...

Participants in this study were informed that...

We informed participants that...

I found that...

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Last updated on 3 May, 2017

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