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I and we

  1. Apr 9, 2006 #1
    when wrting a paper, we shouldn't use "I" instead of "we" even when we do it on our own, right ?

    -Tim Benny
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 9, 2006 #2
    What are you talking about? Could you provide an example?
  4. Apr 9, 2006 #3
    Give me an asnwer please.
  5. Apr 9, 2006 #4
    writing a thesis to graduate, in that , I shouldn't say, "....I will explain on pertubation system in this section...." instead of "We will explain on perturabtion system..."
  6. Apr 9, 2006 #5
    I think it's coming back into acceptance. Writing as if you were omnipotent, ie without the use of I or we, is definitely a no no (wasn't before). If you use we, specify who we is. Keep your reader informed. It is fine to use "I."
  7. Apr 9, 2006 #6
    e.g. I will trace the evolution of blah blah blah
    We will begin our investigation by yatta yatta yatta

    Either one is cool, but I is acceptable and might be clearer.
  8. Apr 9, 2006 #7
    thanks, and bye, Tim Benny
  9. Apr 9, 2006 #8
    You'd use "we".
  10. Apr 9, 2006 #9


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    You know what's really pretentious? Personify your paper. You can actually start a paper by saying "This paper will trace the evolution of . . ." (to use the example from above).
  11. Apr 9, 2006 #10


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    There is also the everything in the passive voice strategy; "It is shown here how to square the circle".
  12. Apr 9, 2006 #11


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    In formal, scientific writing, especially a thesis, the proper approach is to not use the first person at all. You're supposed to talk about the facts and evidence, not your personal triumphs. Turn off your grammar check and do as selfAdjoint suggested, switch to third person, passive voice. (I say turn off grammar check, because it will keep telling you you're using passive voice too much. :rolleyes:)

    Some journals are permitting more first person writing, one I know even encourages it, but I'd stick with tradition in a thesis, just to be on the safe side. As for the choice of "I" vs. "we" when you're writing in the first person, it of course depends on whether you did the work entirely on your own, or as part of a team. Generally, students do it as part of a team with at least their mentor, so the first person plural is most appropriate.
    Last edited: Apr 9, 2006
  13. Apr 9, 2006 #12


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    I'm with Moonie on this one. I've never seen a situation where a proper paper is written in anything but the third person.
  14. Apr 9, 2006 #13
    That's just what my teacher was talking about. There is debate on what should be used, and the argument against using 3rd person is that it comes across as an omnipotent view. Instead of saying, "I/We think" or "I/We found that," one says "it is," "it seems," or "it has been found"....well to whom, by whom, in what circumstance? The problem with that type of narration is that it doesn't specify these things, so the reader doesn't have a context for what is being found out about. Further, writers using that style are also able to present their findings as strict fact - "The gorillas were peaceful all the time," comes across as a stated fact, rather than a grounded observation. By whom were they observed to be so? This will affect results after all, so it is important for the reader to know. As I have understood it, postmodernists are pointing these problems out, raising these issues.

    My personal view comes from the field of anthropology, in which ethnographies and ethnologies have been writtin in the 3rd person style, giving the anthropologist an all-knowing position which has clearly been abused in the past, and likely affects research now. E.G. "Middle Status of Savagery: It commenced with the acquisition of a fish subsistence and a knowledge of the use of fire, and ended with the invention of the bow and arrow. Mankind, while in this condition, spread from their original habitat over the greater portion of the earth's surface. Among tribes still existing it will leave in the Middle Status of savagery, for example, the Australians and the greater part of the Polynesians when discovered." - Morgan, "Ethnical Periods" 1877. Armchair academics has made this style tradition, with which anthropologists armed themselves when they finally got out into the field. Naturally, postmodernist views rub objective science the wrong way. Many professional researchers and academics, however, do recognize that this tradition of using 3rd person passive is privileged and have opted for use of 1st person when appropriate. Always good to keep things in perspective.
    Last edited: Apr 9, 2006
  15. Apr 9, 2006 #14
    Example of professional paper written in first person, "we."

    k, nevermind, file too big. Working on finding use of "I."
    Last edited: Apr 9, 2006
  16. Apr 9, 2006 #15
    Most papers I've seen use first person plural in the abstract, and mostly passive 3rd person in the paper itself with occasional "we". Skimming the current issue of http://prl.aps.org/toc/PRL/v96/i13" [Broken], sixteen of the first twenty abstracts use "we". I do not remember ever seeing an "I" published, even in single-author papers (I'd love a counterexample!).
    Last edited by a moderator: May 2, 2017
  17. Apr 9, 2006 #16
    Use of "I" in this paper. You can find it by typing a space an I and another space in the search function.

    Attached Files:

  18. Apr 9, 2006 #17
  19. Apr 9, 2006 #18
    From the American Journal of Botany, hope link works for everyone, the pdf was too big.

    http://www.box.net/public/nd1cs4q5d4 [Broken]
    Last edited by a moderator: May 2, 2017
  20. Apr 9, 2006 #19


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    Examples abound in fields where the writer works alone - literature, film, philosophy, politics. The OP didn't ask specifically about scientific research papers. He's probably an undergrad that has to write papers in a vast variety of subjects. The specifics of how he should write depend on the subject, as well as the professor.

    Your best bet, Drimar, is to ask your professor what he/she expects. If you're asked to formulate your own thesis, to give your own opinion, use the first person singular "I." If you're collaborating with others on a research project, use the first person plural "we." Mix it up; in each case, go ahead and write from the perspective of the paper, and from an objective perspective, and from first-person.
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  21. Apr 9, 2006 #20


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    Using 3rd person doesn't absolve the writer from citing the original studies nor does it permit making generalizations that are untrue!

    Just taking the sample sentence you gave above, stating "The gorillas were peaceful all the time," would simply be an inaccurate statement. Instead, the authors should write something more like, "The gorillas were not observed to exhibit any agressive behaviors when the investigators avoided all eye contact when entering the enclosure." And that sure sounds a lot better for formal writing than, "We did not observe the gorillas exhibiting any agressive behaviors when we avoided eye contact upon entering their enclosure."

    But, either way, it's all about being very precise with wording. To simply state, "The gorillas were not agressive," would be imprecise, because it does not sufficiently describe the conditions, and makes presumptions about behaviors you were not present to observe (or the ones you couldn't watch while averting your eyes). But, then that's why every research paper has a methods section to clearly explain the conditions of the observation, and that's why, aside from giving credit where credit is due, it's important to cite the original references when making statements about earlier work; it gives the reader the opportunity to check the facts for themself and determine if the statement is accurately representing the prior work.

    Phrases like, "It seems..." or "It has been found..." are a separate problem from usage of first vs. third person. They're actually both grammatically incorrect uses of an indefinite pronoun. As my English teacher used to write on my essays in elementary school, "It? What it?" The pronoun refers to nothing in that sentence construction. The more correct usage would be, "Prior results suggest..." or "Previous studies have demonstrated..." followed by citation of those previous studies to prove you're not just handwaving.
  22. Apr 9, 2006 #21
    Thus I said, when appropriate one may use "I." I don't think speaking in the 3rd person is always problematic, but it can be. For our midterm take home essays, we were encouraged to use I/We and to not use the passive voice, which just makes sentences awkward (and usually longer and wordy). The passive voices also avoids directly addressing who did what (except when citing others, in which case you can cite them in text). Obviously, that is not the status quo value right now. I've just recently been told that the tradition of 3rd person passive is being questioned.
  23. Apr 9, 2006 #22
    I second that.
  24. Apr 11, 2006 #23


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    I understand the reasons for giving style suggestions, but the use of 'correct' and 'incorrect' doesn't seem appropriate when coming from a teacher because I think it obscures the fact that those 'rules' are just personal opinions and desires. It also seems that, as a rule of thumb, telling people to never do X isn't as helpful as telling people that doing X will produce effect Y. These particular types of expressions seem to have some very useful uses. Just try paraphrasing the following.

    (1) a. It rained, snowed, and flooded.
    (1) b. It was hot yesterday.
    (1) c. It feels like it is going to snow.
    (1) d. There are various theories concerning this phenomenon.

    Perhaps it does indeed refer to something in (1a-c)?

    I think (1d) presents a real problem unless you can think of a paraphrase that uses be (am, are, is). The problem is that be doesn't really have any meaning -- it's not like other verbs in that it doesn't have its own structure -- its main job is just to link two other structures together, namely, the subject (there) to its predicate (various theories concerning this phenomenon). The subject here is basically empty, so perhaps you're really only saying that the predicate, well, is a predicate. Saying that the predicate exists

    (2) Various theories concerning this phenomenon exist.

    seems similar but not quite the same. Plus, the structure of other verbs has the potential to add extra meaning.

    (3) a. There are many ghosts in fairytales.
    (3) b. Many ghosts in fairytales exist.
    (3) c. Many ghosts exist in fairytales.

    (4) Many ghosts occur in fairytales.

    seems to work, but

    (5) a. There was a predicted result.
    (5) b. A predicted result occurred.

    Anywho, you guys might not care enough to pursue this, but I don't see any reason to shun these already desolate expressions. :frown:

    Hm, I guess you could just say something like

    (6) a. Various theories concerning this phenomenon are.
    (6) b. I am.
    Last edited: Apr 11, 2006
  25. Apr 11, 2006 #24


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    What the heck...I woke up way too early today, so I might as well play with semantics. :biggrin:
    That's exactly how I would rephrase the sentence, for formal writing anyway. Of course, we speak differently in informal writing or spoken language.

    I would use:
    In fairy tales, many ghosts exist.

    The result was as predicted.

    But, I wouldn't use either of those sentences (a or b) in scientific writing. They again have the problem of imprecision. (Note that in this second sentence, while the construction is the same, "they" is not an undefined pronoun, instead, "they" refers the reader to "those sentences" mentioned in the preceding sentence. One still needs to be careful that there is no ambiguity of which "they" is being referenced.) Instead, the better approach would be to state the predicted result. Incidentally, I'm not sure if you intended it to be so or not, but a and b, above, do not mean the same thing. In a, the sentence is only saying a predicted result exists (one would hope so!), and b is saying that that predicted result was what actually turned out be the outcome of the experiment, or that the results were consistent with the predictions. Either way, the predicted result needs to first be defined.

    I'd add one modification to that:
    "Various theories concerning this phenomenon are..."

    In other words, the sentence still needs to be completed to state what those theories are. Otherwise, it's a meaningless sentence that just wastes space in a scientific paper. Such a sentence may have a place in other forms of writing, such as English essays. I suppose when a student comes to a "Physics Forum" and asks a question about thesis writing, I'm assuming they mean scientific writing, not a thesis for an English or history degree (although, even in those cases, I'd have a hard time accepting students would not be expected to be precise in their meaning).

    Personally, I don't like reading scientific papers that have been written in the first person. It sounds too much like bragging or like a child's lab report, "I did...and we conclude..." I end up thinking things like, "Well, of course it's what you did and your conclusions, because it's your paper. I would hope you did the work for your own paper."
  26. Apr 11, 2006 #25
    I agree with honestrosewater on this, a lot of rules for writing style are preferences that don't affect how scientific your research or analysis is. I think it's just been drilled into us that for things to be scientifically valid, we must not only follow the scientific method, but also school the way we talk about things. I don't mean being objective and clear, I'm referring to the way we subjectively associate certain styles of behavior or communication to be professional (and therefore valid) versus unprofessional (which can detract from the value people give your results). It's like whether or not you wear a suit to work, you can still perform your job well; but you aren't playing by the social rules and therefore your work is taken less seriously. An admission and awareness of human subjectivity (and therefore potential for error) through the use of first person perspective can even reinforce the level of objectivity expected in scientific work. Aside from this, I think peer review does a great job of evaluating research.
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