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Third Person Essay Rules

Style, Genre & Writing


This resource provides a list of key concepts, words, and phrases that multi-lingual writers may find useful if they are new to writing in the North American educational context. It covers concepts and and key words pertaining to the stages in the writing process, style, citation and reference, and other common expressions in academic writing

Contributors:Heejung Kwon
Last Edited: 2017-08-29 12:12:41


What do you mean by tone in writing? In writing, tone can refer to: a writer’s style, character, or attitudes. As a reader, you will get certain feelings from a writer’s attitude toward certain topics. For example, if a writer expresses his or her passion in some topics, then the tone of the writing will very excited. A writer’s tone can be different from genre to genre, and from topic to topic. A Writer’s tone can be formal, informal, subjective, objective, critical, etc.


Being formal or “informal” is a matter of tone. Having a formal tone is often required in academic writing. When your professors or instructors say you should make your writing sound more formal, it means that you should not use some words that are used in a casual written or spoken forms of language.

For example, the language you use in a casual speech in a small get-together or a party is different from the language you use in your academic writing. It means that you should differentiate your use of language for a casual party and for academic writing. 

From your own angle

What does it mean to write from your own angle? If your professors or instructors require you to write something from your own angle, it means that they want to see your own perspectives and your own ways of viewing the world in your writing. It means that you should think about certain topics from your own ways of looking at those topics, instead of reproducing arguments made by others. 

First person point-of-view

Firstperson point-of-view refers to using the first-person pronouns I or We. If you write your paper with your co-authors, you might use we in the paper when you are refering to actions or beliefs that you and your co-authors have taken. In the first person point-of-view, you usually write your paper from your own experience or perspective. The use of first person point-of-view is usually avoided in academic writing. But, sometimes you are allowed to use it; for example, when you explain your own data or primary resources.

“Second person point-of-view”

Second person point-of-view means that you use the second-person pronounyou in your writing. You can sound informal to your audience, so it is often avoided in academic writing. But, if you are writing a recipe for some food, or instructions, or in casual or creative writing, you may use second person point-of-view. 

Third person point-of-view

Third person point-of-view refers to the use of third-person pronouns: he, she, they, and it. The third person point-of-view has a wide range of uses in both creative and academic contexts.


Context refers to the surroundings of certain words, phrases, sentences, or paragraphs. The meanings of words, phrases, sentences may change based on a given context. For example, in “give a hand”, “hand” would be interpreted as “help” or “assistance”, rather than as the thing at the end of your arm that has four fingers and a thumb.


Conventions refer certain traditions or rules of a context or genre. In other words, conventions are generally agreed on practices or rules that writers should pay attention to when they compose a text. For example, in academic writing, you should write in a formal style while using certain styles of citation to deliver your arguments to your audience.


If your assignment tells you to write a critical review or critical analysis about a specific topic, it means that you will carefully examine and analyze whatever you are reviewing. You need to lay out and explain your analysis, providing both strengths and weaknesses of it. In this type of writing, it is important to think about your own critical analysis of others' opinions, rather than merely summarizing them.


If your assignment tells you to write an argumentative paper, you will choose your stance on certain topics, and create a statement that clearly reflects your position or opinion on the topic. You will elaborate on your arguments, by explaining further, providing examples, and referencing relevant literature. In an argumentative paper, it is important to have a good understanding of a topic, and to develop your opinion.


If your assignment tells you to write an expository paper, you will explain and illustrate something in a way that your readers can clearly understand what you are saying in your texts. In an expository paper, you will not be expected to write your own opinions, or positions on certain topics. Instead, you will mostly explain, review, and describe certain concepts or facts. 

 A Definitive Guide to Using Perspective in Academic, Business, and Fiction

Is it OK to use first person (I/my/we/our) in a research paper or job application? Is all formal writing done in third person (he/she/they/one)? Why does the teacher keep crossing out second person (you/your) in student essays?

The issue here is perspective. First person is direct and personal. Second person is aimed at the audience, as in advertising (“You should buy this car now!”), or is quite informal, as in e-mails to a friend (“So, you know how it is when you don’t have any money?”). Third person doesn’t target anyone, and so it’s the most distant and universal.

It’s pretty easy to avoid second person in formal writing, so the main source of confusion comes from whether to use first or third person.

 Academic Writing

The battle between first and third, at least in academia, stems from the tradition to favor third person in formal writing because it was considered more modest, professional, and (above all) objective. Scientists thought it was better to favor the research, not the researcher, so “I conducted a study on” was changed to “the researcher conducted a study on.”

This business of having to use third person, however, can result in imprecise language and, worse, ambiguity. Most academic styles now recommend first person, with APA leading the way.

Take the following:

“A study was conducted on animals. The researchers utilized a longitudinal study. This paper will examine the mating habits of the fennec fox.”

What at first seems like a nice formal start to a paper is actually quite ambiguous. Regarding the first sentence: what study? Conducted by whom? This passive voice is too imprecise.

The second sentence uses third person, but if your paper is talking about other studies and sources, then you might confuse your reader. Is this your term you’re talking about, or one of the past researchers?

The third sentence turns the paper into the researcher. A paper cannot examine. It’s not alive. Only you, the writer, can examine anything. In this situation, the truly clear sentence is, “In this paper, I will examine . . .”

For these reasons and more, first person is now more often being recommended. Of the “big three” (APA, Chicago, MLA) style guides, APA urges first person. The Chicago Manual of Style is also in favor and says under 5.220 (16th ed.), “When you need the first-person singular, use it. It’s not immodest to use it; it’s superstitious not to.”

MLA (used for the humanities) has skirted the issue, but seems to prefer the formality of third person. It doesn't like self-aware statements like, "I am going to say in this paper..." However, as long as the instructor or client does not mind, MLA finds first person acceptable when necessary.


The question of what perspective to use in a story or novel is a personal one. There are no rules. Generally, writers are recommended to use third person when they’re just starting out because it’s a bit easier to get right. With third person, you can write in a detached, generic way, and when you write fiction in first person, it’s exceedingly real and present. Everyone has a different (and distinct) personality, and that personality leaps out when you write in first. In first person, little mistakes and breaks in personality really stand out for the reader.

It is not accepted in mainstream fiction to mix first person and third person.

Don’t write fiction in second person. Please.


Use first person for such situations as autobiographies (unless you’re Donald Trump), but for most non-fiction work, it’s best to stay detached. Use third person.


AP style for journalism and marketing is strict about not using first person to refer to oneself. Stick to third, try to avoid pronouns, and reserve first person for direct quotes in interviews.


Don’t refer to yourself in the third person in resumes. Just as in life (unless you’re Trump) you wouldn’t say, “John develops synergistic platitudes,” when you’re John. In a resume, just assume the first person is understood. Under current job duties, say “Develop synergetic programs,” not “Develops.”


With business, there are no hard and fast rules. Gear your writing to your purpose and what level of formality you think is appropriate. Perspective can increase and decrease that level. For example, look at this formal sentence:

“Microsoft is looking to expand into new areas. It aims to attract talented new people.”

Formally, organizations use “it,” not “they” or “we.”

However, some people might say that looks too stiff, so look at this more easy-going and personal version:

“Microsoft is looking to expand into new areas. We are looking to attract talented new people.”

Second person can also be useful in business writing, especially when giving orders or advice:

“Microsoft is looking to expand into new areas. Be sure to attract talented new people.”

Just remember that choosing your person-perspective has real consequences. Be careful, and good luck.

 Nick S.


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