The Art of Imprecise Word Choice: Using Pronouns for Clarity and Concision -->

Where instructors and editors talk writing.

The Art of Imprecise Word Choice: Using Pronouns for Clarity and Concision

Pronouns are a time-saving foundation of our language, and most of us use them every day.  Using these pronouns like I, we, our, us, and you helps to convey a point of view and is a common form of communication. We say to talk about ourselves, we to discuss things we have done with others, and you to directly communicate with listeners.

While this technique of using pronouns is acceptable in informal communication, when writing in APA style, many of these pronouns should be avoided or used only in specific ways. This is a result of APA’s emphasis on clarity and concision. This post, then, offers a series of tips for using first-person and second-person pronouns effectively to convey a scholarly voice in your APA style academic writing.

Tip 1: Use first-person singular pronouns to increase clarity and show what you’ve done.
First-person singular pronouns include words such as I and me. These pronouns are appropriate in many cases, and they can be used to increase clarity and concision with writing.  For example, saying I allows you to avoid writing in passive voice and it also eliminates the need to say “the researcher” or “the author” when talking about your own work. As an illustration, consider this sentence:

An analysis was performed, and the author found a positive correlation.

When reading this sentence, you might wonder: Who performed the analysis?  Which author are you talking about? These sentences are confusing because the subject of the sentence is unclear.  To make the subject of the sentence clear, the pronoun I can be used.  Here is how this sentence would read if using I appropriately:

I performed an analysis and found a positive correlation.

Since APA is all about clarity, using I in certain cases can help you adhere to APA format by improving your clarity. To learn more, watch this webinar on Appropriate Use of First Person and Avoiding Bias or this overview video on honing your point of view according to APA guidelines

Tip 2: Only use first-person plural pronouns when you’re writing with a co-author.
First-person plural pronouns include words such as we, our, and us. If you and a colleague or several-colleagues are co-authoring an article, using the term we can increase clarity. Just as you should say I when writing about something you did (see tip 1 above), you should write we when writing collaboratively and describing something you and your co-authors did. For example, the sample sentence from Tip 1 would look like this if there were co-authors:

We performed an analysis and found a positive correlation.

Don’t shy away from using we and our when you’re collaborating with other authors on a paper. However, since most Walden paper assignments are single-authored, it’s unlikely that you’ll need to use we very often in your course assignments.

Tip 3: Do not use first-person plural pronouns to refer to your reader or to yourself and others.
Unless you are writing with a co-author, pronouns such as we, our, and us are not appropriate when writing in APA style format. This is because these words put the reader into a group with you, the writer, and they make assumptions about who your reader is.  APA publications have vast audiences, so it’s not always appropriate to make those generalizations. It can be tempting to say we in order to relate to your reader. However, this reduces clarity and can isolate your reader if you make incorrect assumptions.  For example, consider this sentence:

We need to work together to increase communication at all levels of health care administration.

As a reader, you might be wondering: Who needs to work together?  Who is this sentence referring to?  Do I need to work together with someone on this? These questions come up because we isn’t precise enough. Here are some different ways this sentence could be revised:

Nurses and managers need to work together to increase communication at all levels of health care administration.

My co-workers and I need to work together to increase communication at all levels of health care administration.

To increase clarity in situations like this, we can be replaced with more specific nouns and pronouns. So, when you find yourself writing we, our, or us, think hard: Who are you really talking about? Then, replace these first-person plural pronouns with more precise words.

Tip 4: Do not use second-person pronouns in your APA style academic writing.
Second-person pronouns include words like you and your. These pronouns should be avoided in scholarly writing because, like we above, they can result in inaccurate assumptions about the reader. Here’s an example of second-person pronouns being used ineffectively:

To create a safe space for the patient, you can adjust your body and rearrange your office to have a more welcoming feel.

In this sentence, it’s unclear who should be doing these actions, and depending on who the reader is, you might not be an appropriate representation of who should act. A more specific noun would increase clarity. Thus, this sentence could be re-written like this:

To create a safe space for the patient, counselors can adjust their bodies and rearrange their offices to have a more welcoming feel.

In situations like this, you can replace second-person pronouns with either more specific nouns or with third-person pronouns such as their, they, he or she. These are excellent methods for removing second-person pronouns from your writing.

None of this is an exact science, and so much of word choice comes down to audience and purpose and genre. So, the most important thing to keep in mind is that one of the cornerstones of APA style is clarity and concision. Using pronouns appropriately will help you produce clear and concise academic writing.

Jes Philbrook is a Writing Instructor in the Walden University Writing Center. She lives in Columbia, Missouri with her husband and two cats. She is a huge fan of using all of the pronouns in her informal communication, as you can tell from this post, and she is eager to help students succeed in their academic lives through effective communication.

Never miss a new post; Opt-out at any time


  1. Can you also comment on the use of the indefinite pronoun, "it?" I often encourage student not to use it, but there are too many example of it in the literature.

    1. Hi! Indefinite pronouns can create clarity issues when it is unclear what they refer back to. The use of them in writing, however, is not prohibited. At Walden we adhere to APA style guidelines, which have recommendations for some pronoun use, but not the indefinite pronoun "it." A possible option might be to encourage students to replace "it" with what they are referring to X number of times in a piece of writing. For example, if they have 20 occurrences of "it" in an essay, you could challenge them to replace 10. Specific is always better, but "it" itself is not incorrect. ~ Melissa