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Impersonal language

In academic writing terms such as "I" or "my" are avoided. How do you express your opinion without using personal forms? Read to find more.
© University of Reading

At various points in the course it has been mentioned that there seems to be more use of impersonal language in academic writing. This may involve avoiding the use of “I”, “my”, “you”, “your”, “we” and “our”. It has also been mentioned that conventions about the acceptability of the use of these personal forms vary from discipline to discipline.

In many types of essay, you are expected to make your own viewpoint on a topic clear – this is often done through a thesis statement.

But how can you express your opinion without using “I” or “my”? Here are some suggestions:

1. Use a passive structure

Passive structures are often used in scientific writing, where the process is more important than the people carrying them out, for example;

Don’ts Do’s
“In the UK, farmers usually harvest apples in August or September. People sell about 60% in the UK and export the rest, mainly to Europe” “In the UK, apples are usually harvested in August or September. About 60% are sold in the UK, and the rest are exported, mainly to Europe.”

but in all disciplines you can avoid using personal forms with a passive structure.

Don’ts Do’s
We should invest more money in education” More money should be invested in education”

Note that you can also use passive structures to introduce other people’s perspectives, which may be different to your own.

Don’ts Do’s
Many people claim that children are spending less time reading these days, but recent research suggests…” It is widely claimed that children are spending less time reading these days, but recent research suggests…”

2. Use a noun phrase

You looked at the use of noun phrases in Week 2. Long complex noun phrases are very characteristic of academic writing, and by using them you can also avoid using personal forms.

Don’ts Do’s
If we banned the use of petrol as a fuel for cars, and we encouraged people to buy electric cars, this would help protect the environment.” A ban on the sale of petrol cars, together with incentives to buy electric cars, would help protect the environment.”

3. Use “It is” + ADJECTIVE and “There is/are” + NOUN

“It” and “There” are often used as ‘empty subjects’. That is to say, in general you must have a subject and a verb in every sentence, but when you cannot think of an obvious subject, or you want to avoid a personal form you can use “It” or “There”.

Don’ts Do’s
I cannot understand why this decision was taken.” It is difficult to understand why this decision was taken.”
Many people were confused about the change in legislation about tobacco advertising.” There was a lot of confusion about the change in legislation about tobacco advertising.”

4. Use adjectives and adverbs

Often adjectives and adverbs can be used to express your own viewpoint indirectly. Here are two extracts from Patrick’s essay, which was discussed in Week 1. The adjectives and adverbs which reveal Patrick’s viewpoint are highlighted.

Extract 1: Although at the retail stage food waste may be considered small in comparison with the amount of food waste overall, it is still an issue which can lead to (considerable)[red] economic loss as well as environmental problems. However, if this waste can be recycled effectively, it can potentially have (huge)[red] value economically, environmentally and socially…. Extract 2: …In addition, it should be mentioned that this is (really)[green] a "re-delivered" value, originating from production that was unvalued at the retail stage (Cicatiello, 2016). Nevertheless, it is (actually)[green] a “re-produced” value which is collected from a source without value because these products were mainly thrown away.

© University of Reading
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