Clarifying the Use of First-Person Pronouns in APA Style

At Dissertation Editor, we frequently receive questions and concerns about the use of first-person pronouns in academic writing. A common query is: "Why did you use first-person pronouns to edit my paper?" This blog post aims to clarify this matter, specifically focusing on the American Psychological Association (APA) guidelines, to help our clients understand our editorial choices and the current standards.

Understanding APA Guidelines

The APA officially endorses the use of first-person pronouns in its 7th edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (2020). This preference often surprises scholars who are accustomed to avoiding first-person pronouns in academic writing. However, the APA's stance is clear and is designed to reduce ambiguity and increase clarity in attribution.

Key Points from the APA Manual

The rule is outlined in Section 4.16, "First- Versus Third-Person Pronouns," of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (7th ed., 2020, p. 120), which states:

To avoid ambiguity in attribution, use the first person rather than the third person when describing the work you did as part of your research and when expressing your own views. If you are writing a paper by yourself, use the pronoun “I”; do not use the pronoun “we” to refer to yourself if you do not have coauthors (see also Section 4.17). If you are writing a paper with coauthors, use the pronoun “we.” Do not refer to yourself or your coauthors in the third person as “the author(s)” or “the researcher(s).”

Additional Resources

For those without easy access to the APA manual, here are two helpful web resources on the subject, published by the APA:

These resources provide further explanation and examples of proper first-person usage in APA style.

Practical Examples

When writing an APA Style paper by yourself, use the first-person pronoun “I” to refer to yourself, and use the pronoun “we” when writing an APA Style paper with others. Here are some example phrases:

  • "I think…"
  • "I believe…"
  • "I interviewed the participants…"
  • "I analyzed the data…"
  • "My analysis of the data revealed…"
  • "We concluded…"
  • "Our results showed…"

The instructive point here is that APA prefers "I analyzed the data..." and "My analysis of the data revealed..." over passive constructions like "The data were analyzed..." or third-person references like "The researcher analyzed the data..." This approach is intended to make writing clearer and more direct.

Our Editorial Practices

Given the APA's guidelines, our editors follow these rules unless instructed otherwise. We include a special note on this issue at the beginning of every service contract to ensure clarity:

Please be aware of the following before initiating your order:
We will adhere to APA style as set forth in the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (7th ed.). However, if you have additional guidelines from your university (e.g., a template, handbook, checklist, or sample dissertation), you must provide these prior to the start of editing. Instructions received after the completion of editing cannot be implemented as part of the service order described herein.
APA 7 now requires that writers use first person (i.e., “I investigated”) rather than third person (i.e., “the researcher investigated”) when referring to themselves in their writing. Please confirm that you are following this requirement; if you are not, please provide alternate instructions prior to the start of editing. If you have questions about this rule, please refer to the following resource from the official APA Style Blog:

What to Do if You Prefer a Different Style

If you decide you still wish to disregard this particular APA guideline, we are happy to handle the change as a follow-up order. Just let us know which alternative you and your committee prefer—passive voice ("The data were analyzed...") or third person ("The researcher analyzed the data..."). We will accommodate your preferences to ensure your dissertation meets your specific requirements.

We hope this blog post clarifies the APA guidelines and our editorial choices! If you have any further questions or need additional clarification, please don't hesitate to reach out to us.

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Having a neutral editor review my dissertation and help me reduce the content to the key facts was incredibly helpful. As researchers, we are often too close to the data to know which parts of the document to shed and which to keep. This process helped me create a better document with more focus and better delivery of the research results.


- Kim M.

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