THE IMPORTANCE OF AVOIDING ‘I’, ‘we’ AND ‘you’
The pronouns I, we and you (and related words like me, my, ours, ourselves, your, and yours) are frequently said to be unsuitable for academic and professional writing. The reason usually given is that this kind of English needs to sound impersonal, objective and functional, and these words prevent that because they make unnecessary references to particular people. They are suitable only when the writer or the addressee is the central topic, for example in CVs. Whatever the truth, having too many of these words in academic and professional writing is likely to make a bad impression.
The need to avoid words like I, we and you in academic and professional writing gives a broader clue about what this writing is. It is not the use of impressive terminology and long sentences (which do not meet the need that all writing has to be clear and simple), but is instead not using certain words and structures considered to be too informal or conversational. Hence, the first step towards achieving a suitable formal style is to know which words and structures should be avoided.
Many undesirable words are fairly obvious (e.g. slang like gonna); but some are not and are quite common in the formal writing of inexperienced academic and professional writers. Within this blog, a full list is available on the Learning Materials page under the heading “Words to Avoid in Academic Writing”, and further advice may be found in the posts 25. Conjunction Positioning, 53. “As”, “Like” and “Such As”, 57. Indirect Questions in Formal Writing, 63. Constraints on Using “the one(s)”, 67. Numbers in Spoken English, 108. Formal and Informal Words and 152. Agreeing and Disagreeing in Formal Contexts.
In addition to knowing which words and structures to avoid, a successful academic or professional writer must be able to find suitable substitute language. This is reminiscent of the problem of paraphrasing (see 80. How to Paraphrase). Again the solution will in many cases be obvious, but sometimes give a problem. Substituting I, we and you (and their derivatives) is certainly sometimes a problem. I wish to concentrate on the difficulty that their replacement gives when they are the subject of a sentence (for some advice on how to replace informal words in other sentence positions, see 39. “Decide” or “Make a Decision?”).
THE ABSENCE OF A SINGLE WAY TO AVOID INFORMAL SUBJECT PRONOUNS
Many coursebooks concentrate on one way to avoid informal subject pronouns like I, we and you: using passive verbs. Yet in a surprisingly large number of cases a passive verb cannot replace an informal subject pronoun. The following sentences (except the first) illustrate a range of situations where avoiding I with a passive verb is not possible. One other – in CV-writing – is illustrated in the post 93. Good and Bad Lists.
(a) I will describe three main categories.
(b) I was affected in three different ways.
(c) I proceeded (a little later).
(d) I became a group member.
(e) I want first to provide some background.
(f) I enjoyed sampling the product.
(g) I will argue that prices should be higher.
(h) I believe that reading helps grammar learning.
Only in sentence (a) can I be avoided by means of a standard verb change from active to passive (Three main categories will be described). The reason is that only sentence (a) contains an active verb (will describe) with an object (categories − for details of objects, see 8. Object-Dropping Errors). Note that even here a passive is not compulsory to avoid the unwanted I: instead of will be described you could have a different verb in the active voice, such as follow (see 27. How to Avoid Passive Verbs).
In sentence (b), a change from active to passive is not possible because the verb with I is already passive (was affected). In the others, although the verb with I is active, there is no object noun or pronoun. Sentence (c) illustrates an active verb with nothing at all after it, or just an adverb phrase like a little later (see 113: Verbs That Cannot Be Passive). In sentence (d), there is a noun after the verb (group member), but it is a complement rather than an object (it refers to the subject). The other sentences all have another verb after the one with I. In (e) this verb is in the infinitive form (to provide), in (f) it has -ing (see 70. Gerunds), while in (g) and (h) it makes an ordinary statement after that (see 153. Conjunction Uses of “that”).
HOW TO AVOID ‘I’ WHEN A PASSIVE VERB IS NOT POSSIBLE
1. When the Verb with ‘I’ is Already Passive or is Used Alone
In this situation – sentences (b) and (c) above – the most useful strategy appears to be to change the verb into a related noun (see 131. Uses of “Action” Nouns). Here are sentences (b) and (c) after this change (with the relevant nouns underlined):
(b1) Three different effects were felt.
(c1) The procedure was commenced (a little later).
Finding a related noun (or a synonym of one) is not so difficult (see 14. Action Outcomes); it can be more challenging to find the verb to go with it, especially since some appropriate verbs are quite idiomatic partners of the chosen noun.
2. When the Verb with ‘I’ has a Complement
A complement is a noun, pronoun or adjective that is shown by a verb to match an earlier noun or pronoun (see 8. Object-Dropping Errors and 92. Complement-Showing “As”). For example, in (d) above the complement a group member matches I – they are the same person. Complements can often be recognised from the verbs they follow: BECOME, BE and a few others. In addition to (d) above, the following all contain a complement:
(i) I became uncomfortable.
(j) I felt proud.
(k) I was a supervisor.
These sentences can be paraphrased without I like this:
(d1) Group membership was taken up.
(i1) Discomfort was felt.
(j1) (A feeling of) pride was experienced.
(k1) A supervisory position was held.
Generalizing from these is difficult, but the main tendency seems to be to make the complement into the subject of the new sentence, rather as we do with objects. Adjective complements (uncomfortable, proud) become related nouns (discomfort, pride), whereas noun complements (a group member, a supervisor) often need to be slightly changed (in these examples the meaning of “status” or “position” or “role” needs to be added).
3. When the Verb with ‘I’ has another Verb Soon After
A very useful avoidance strategy here is to begin with it and a form of BE. Compare the following with the original sentences above:
(e1) It is necessary first TO PROVIDE some background.
(f1) It was enjoyable SAMPLING/TO SAMPLE the product.
(g1) It will be argued that prices SHOULD BE higher.
Sentences like this always contain a second verb near the end (capitalised), which sometimes has to, sometimes -ing and sometimes an ordinary form after that. More about these alternatives is in the post 103. Using “it” for a Subsequent Verb. Here is another example:
(l) I hope to discuss this in detail.
(l1) It is hoped TO DISCUSS this in detail.
Many sentences with it can also be written with there + BE + NOUN (see 161. Presenting Information with “there”). Sentences (e1), (f1) and (g1), for example, could respectively begin There is a need, There was enjoyment and There will be an argument. However, (l1) seems less likely to start with there.
Finally, a word needs to be said about avoiding I with opinion verbs like THINK, BELIEVE and MAINTAIN (+ that and another verb), as in (h) above. Again, one can use it, but care has to be taken over the verb after it. The passive of certain reporting verbs (SAY, ARGUE, MAINTAIN) is a possibility provided it has can be or may be instead of is, like this:
(h1) It can be said that unhealthy food should be taxed.
The reason for this requirement is that the apparently more suitable it is said (etc.) reports what other people think, rather than the writer. In order to use is (or seems) instead of can be, one must normally use a following adjective rather than verb (e.g. it is arguable that …). For further possibilities, see 107. The Language of Opinions.