Using the First Person in APA Style

Overview

It is a common misnomer that you cannot use the first person in APA style. It is not that you cannot use the first person or the first person plural that is the issues; rather, it is how you use it. Students are often confused by the feedback correcting their usage of the first person, which frequently makes this issue more confusing. This page will provide some very brief notes on the correct usage of the first person.

What is the first person? | What is the First Person Plural? | Using the First Person Correctly |
The Catch | When Not to Use the First Person: Common Errors

What is the first person?

In grammar, the first person refers to the author or authors when using a pronoun referring to the author(s) of that article (click here for more information on pronouns). For example, "I" or "me" is a first person pronoun that could be used to refer to the author in a paper with one author. Similarly, "we" is a pronoun that could be used to refer to the authors when there are more than one author. "We" is an example of the first person plural.

What is the First Person Plural?

The last example in the above section is an example of the first person plural. Essentially, this is a first person pronoun referring to more than one person. "We" and "us" are the first person plural.

Using the First Person Correctly

APA style allows for the first person to be used only in reference to the author or authors of the article. In other words, you can use "I" to refer to yourself if you are the only author of the paper. You can use "we" to refer to the authors when there are more than one author of the paper.

The Catch

So what's the catch? Just because you can use the first person in scholarly writing does not mean you should overuse it. Good, scholarly writing tries to avoid using the first person too often. This can easily make a paper sound narcissistic and focuses the individual excessively on the author instead of the content. With that said, there are types of writing for which this might be more appropriate. For example, a position paper or reaction paper would use the first person more frequently. Additionally, many feminist and cultural approaches to writing which are more embodies rely more heavily on the first person.

The First Person Plural -- Additional Caveats

"We" and "Us" are examples of the first person plural. This is often used to refer to humankind or people in general; however, APA style discourages this. The first person plural incurs all the same challenges as the first person along with some additional problems. The first person plural is clear on who is being referred to: the author. However, with the first person plural, it is often unclear less clear about who the pronoun is referring to.

Despite the problems in clarity with the first person plural, it is commonly used in popular and even scholarly writing. It is common to find the first person plural in books, but not common to see authors getting away with this in journal articles. In general, it is best to reserve using the first person plural to situations in which you are referring to the authors in papers with multiple authors. However, if you choose to use it outside of this occasion, it is important to always ask if it is clear who the first person plural is referring to. For example, anytime you use the word "we" the reader should clearly be able to identify who the "we" is referring to.

When to NOT use the first person plural

The first person plural is not to be used to refer to people or humankind in general. It is only to be used to refer to the authors. This is probably one of the most common feedback statements I give on papers that I grade. The more general usage of the first person can become confusing, particularly if used in a paper where the first person is also used to refer to the author(s). Anytime you find yourself using the first person in this general sense, try to reword it to be more specific about the person or group to which you are referring.

Example:

Incorrect:

We all fear death.

Correct:

All people fear death.

References

American Psychological Association. (2001). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author. (Purchase here)

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