“I”, “we” and “you” are often too informal in an academic text. They may be avoidable with a passive verb, but an alternative is sometimes necessary
THE IMPORTANCE OF AVOIDING ‘I’, ‘we’ AND ‘you’
The pronounsI, we and you (and related words like me, my, ours, ourselves, your, and yours) are frequently said to be unsuitable for academic and professional writing. The reason usually given is that this kind of English needs to sound impersonal, objective and functional, and these words prevent that because they make unnecessary references to particular people. They are suitable only when the writer or the addressee is the central topic, for example in CVs. Whatever the truth, having too many of these words in academic and professional writing is likely to make a bad impression.
The need to avoid words like I, we and you in academic and professional writing gives a broader clue about what this writing is. It is not the use of impressive terminology and long sentences (which do not meet the need that all writing has to be clear and simple), but is instead not usingcertain words and structures considered to be too informal or conversational. Hence, the first step towards achieving a suitable formal style is to know which words and structures should be avoided.
Many undesirable words are fairly obvious (e.g. slang like gonna); but some are not and are quite common in the formal writing of inexperienced academic and professional writers. Within this blog, a full list is available on the Learning Materials page under the heading “Words to Avoid in Academic Writing”, and further advice may be found in the posts 25. Conjunction Positioning, 53. “As”, “Like” and “Such As”, 57. Indirect Questions in Formal Writing, 63. Constraints on Using “the one(s)”, 67. Numbers in Spoken English, 108. Formal and Informal Wordsand 152. Agreeing and Disagreeing in Formal Contexts.
In addition to knowing which words and structures to avoid, a successful academic or professional writer must be able to find suitable substitute language. This is reminiscent of the problem of paraphrasing (see 80. How to Paraphrase). Again the solution will in many cases be obvious, but sometimes give a problem. Substituting I, we and you (and their derivatives) is certainly sometimes a problem. I wish to concentrate on the difficulty that their replacement gives when they are the subject of a sentence (for some advice on how to replace informal words in other sentence positions, see 39. “Decide” or “Make a Decision?”).
THE ABSENCE OF A SINGLE WAY TO AVOID INFORMAL SUBJECT PRONOUNS
Many coursebooks concentrate on one way to avoid informal subjectpronouns like I, we and you: using passive verbs. Yet in a surprisingly large number of cases a passive verb cannot replace an informal subject pronoun. The following sentences (except the first) illustrate a range of situations where avoiding I with a passive verb is not possible. One other – in CV-writing – is illustrated in the post 93. Good and Bad Lists.
(a) I will describe three main categories.
(b) I was affected in three different ways.
(c) I proceeded (a little later).
(d) I became a group member.
(e) I want first to provide some background.
(f) I enjoyed sampling the product.
(g) I will argue that prices should be higher.
(h) I believe that reading helps grammar learning.
Only in sentence (a) can I be avoided by means of a standard verb change from active to passive (Three main categories will be described). The reason is that only sentence (a) contains an active verb (will describe) with an object (categories − for details of objects, see 8. Object-Dropping Errors). Note that even here a passive is not compulsory to avoid the unwanted I: instead of will be described you could have a different verb in the active voice, such as follow (see 27. How to Avoid Passive Verbs) or there are (see 161. Special Uses of “There” Sentences).
In sentence (b), a change from active to passive is not possible because the verb with I is already passive (was affected). In the others, although the verb with I is active, there is no object noun or pronoun. Sentence (c) has an active verb with nothing at all after it, or just an adverb phrase like a little later (see 113. Verbs That Cannot Be Passive). In sentence (d), there is a noun after the verb (group member), but it is a complement rather than an object (it refers to the subject). The other sentences all have another verb after the one with I. In (e) this verb is in the infinitive form (to provide), in (f) it has -ing (see 70. Gerunds), while in (g) and (h) it makes an ordinary statement after that (see 153. Conjunction Uses of “that”).
HOW TO AVOID ‘I’ WHEN A PASSIVE VERB IS NOT POSSIBLE
1. When the Verb with ‘I’ is Already Passive or is Used Alone
In this situation – sentences (b) and (c) above – the most useful strategy appears to be to change the verb into a related noun (see 131. Uses of “Action” Nouns). Here are sentences (b) and (c) after this change (with the relevant nouns underlined):
(b1) Three different effects were felt.
(c1) The procedure was commenced (a little later).
Finding a related noun (or a synonym of one) is not so difficult (see 14. Action Outcomes); a greater challenge is often finding the verb to go with it, especially since some appropriate verbs are quite idiomatic partners of the chosen noun (see 173. Verb Choice before Action Nouns). If the subject of the sentence lacks the (as in b1) there + BE is a frequent possibility (There were three… – see 161. Special Uses of “There” Sentences).
2. When the Verb with ‘I’ has a Complement
A complement is a noun, pronoun or adjective that is shown by a verb to match an earlier noun or pronoun (see 8. Object-Dropping Errors and 92. Complement-Showing “As”). For example, in (d) above the complement a group member matches I – they are the same person. Complements can often be recognised from the verbs they follow: BECOME, BE and a few others. In addition to (d) above, the following all contain a complement:
(i) I became uncomfortable.
(j) I felt proud.
(k) I was a supervisor.
These sentences can be paraphrased without I like this:
(d1) Group membership was taken up.
(i1) Discomfort was felt/There was discomfort.
(j1) (A feeling of) pride was experienced.
(k1) A supervisory position was held.
Generalizing from these is difficult, but the main tendency seems to be to make the complement into the subject of the new sentence, rather as we do with objects. Adjective complements (uncomfortable, proud) become related nouns (discomfort, pride), whereas noun complements (a group member, a supervisor) often need to be slightly changed (in these examples the meaning of “status” or “position” or “role” needs to be added).
3. When the Verb with ‘I’ has another Verb Soon After
A very useful avoidance strategy here is to begin with it and a form of BE. Compare the following with the original sentences above:
(e1) It is necessary first TO PROVIDE some background.
(f1) It was enjoyable SAMPLING/TO SAMPLE the product.
(g1) It will be argued that prices SHOULD BE higher.
Sentences like this always contain a second verb near the end (capitalised), which sometimes has to, sometimes -ing and sometimes an ordinary form after that. More about these alternatives is in the post 103. Using “it” for a Subsequent Verb. Here is another example:
(l) I hope to discuss this in detail.
(l1) It is hoped TO DISCUSS this in detail.
Many sentences with it can also be written with there + BE + NOUN (see 161. Special Uses of “There” Sentences). Sentences (e1), (f1) and (g1), for example, could respectively begin There is a need, There was enjoyment and There will be an argument. However, (l1) seems less likely to start with there.
Finally, a word needs to be said about avoiding I with opinion verbs like THINK, BELIEVE and MAINTAIN (+ that and another verb), as in (h) above. Again, one can use it, but care has to be taken over the verb after it. The passive of certain reporting verbs (SAY, ARGUE, MAINTAIN) is a possibility provided it has can be or may be instead of is, like this:
(h1) It can be said that unhealthy food should be taxed.
The reason for this requirement is that the apparently more suitable it is said (etc.) reports what other people think, rather than the writer. In order to use is (or seems) instead of can be, one must normally use a following adjective rather than verb (e.g. it is arguable that …). For further possibilities, see 107. The Language of Opinions.
It’s a familiar scene: you’re slumped over your keyboard or notebook, obsessing over your character. While we tend to agonize over everything from structure to backstory, it’s important to weigh how you write something too. A perfectly constructed world is flat on the page if you use feeble, common words. When you’re finished constructing your perfectly balanced world, do your writing a favor and take another pass to weed out these 18 haggard words.
High on any list of most used English words is “good.” While this word may appear to be the perfect adjective for nearly anything, that is precisely what makes it so vague. Try getting more specific. If something’s going well, try “superb,” “outstanding” or “exceptional.”
Another of the common words in English is “new.” “New” is an adjective that doesn’t always set off alarm bells, so it can be easy to forget about. Give your writing more punch by ditching “new” and using something like “latest” or “recent” instead.
Much like “new,” “long” is spent, yet it doesn’t always register as such while you’re writing. Instead of this cliché phrase, try describing exactly how long it is: “extended,” “lingering” or “endless,” for example.
“Old” is certainly one of those common words that means more to readers if you’re specific about how old a subject is. Is it “ancient,” “fossilized,” “decaying” or “decrepit”?
“Right” is also among the common words that tends to slip through our writer filters. If somebody is correct, you could also say “exact” or “precise.” Don’t let habit words like “right” dampen your writing.
Here’s another adjective that falls a bit flat for readers, but can also easily be improved by getting more specific. Saying something is “odd” or “uncommon” is very different than saying it is “exotic” or “striking.”
“Small” is another adjective that is too generic for writing as good as yours. Use “microscopic,” “miniature” or “tiny” instead. Even using “cramped” or “compact” is more descriptive for your audience.
Just like relying too much on “small,” we tend to describe large things as, well, “large.” Specificity is a big help with this one too: could your subject be “substantial,” “immense,” “enormous” or “massive”?
Whenever we describe something coming “next,” we run the risk of losing our readers. Good options to make your reading more powerful include “upcoming,” “following” or “closer.”
Another case of being too generic is what makes “young” a problematic adjective. If you want your writing to be more captivating, try switching “young” out for “youthful,” “naive” or “budding.”
“Never” is also among common words to use sparingly. Not only is it a common, stale descriptor, it’s also usually incorrect. For something to never happen, even one instance makes this word inaccurate. Try “rarely,” “scarcely” or “occasionally” instead.
“Things” is another repeat offender when it comes to worn out words. Another word where specificity is the key, try replacing “things” with “belongings,” “property” or “tools.”
Just like “never,” “all” is an encompassing, absolute term. Not only is “all” unoriginal, it’s not usually factual. Try using “each” and “copious” instead.
“Feel” is also in the company of common English words. Try using “sense,” or “discern” instead. You can also move your sentence into a more active tense: “I feel hungry” could become “I’m famished,” for example.
“Seem” is bad habit word we are all guilty of using. Regardless of how well you think your sentence is constructed, try switching “seem” out for “shows signs of.” “Comes across as” is another good option to give your writing more power.
Another easy adjective to let slip by, “almost” is a wasted opportunity to engage your readers. “Almost” is more interesting if you say “practically,” “nearly” or “verging on” instead.
“Just making” it or “just barely” affording something isn’t very descriptive. To truly grab a reader, we must do better. Try “narrowly,” “simply” or “hardly” to give your phrasing more weight.
Last but not least, avoid using the common word “went” to describe your subject. “Went” is a word that lacks traction. Try using “chose,” “decided on” or “rambled” to truly grab your readers.
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