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How do competent authors, in a refined and perhaps (slightly) formal way, refer to themselves without saying I? I've seen the term "this writer" somewhere. How is it with a native? Are there other terms that are a little bit more formal and delicate than I is?

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In journalism and reporting, they sometimes use "your correspondent" or "your [word that describes journalist on reporting duty]" –  George Capote Jul 25 at 21:03
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"one", possibly. "One does not simply refer to themselves" –  Mateo Jul 25 at 23:18
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One of the best-written mathematics books I know (Wilfrid Hodges, Model Theory) starts with a section on conventions used in the book, as is usual. But this one includes the following gem: "'I' means 'I' and 'we' means 'we'." And the author really uses the two pronouns in this way without any attempts to hide his personality. Maybe this approach only works in mathematics and hard science, where people sometimes say things such as: "You are right, yesterday you proved the main theorem in my book is wrong and today I found my mistake." And it's not the end of the world, either. –  Hans Adler Jul 26 at 16:20
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Don't be afraid to use the right word in the right situation. Sometimes that word is "I." Just don't talk about yourself so much in your papers. –  ssdecontrol Jul 26 at 18:56
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My point was that it's bad style for a single person to write "as we showed in an earlier paper" or "as the author has shown previously". Instead, write either "as I have shown previously" or just "for a proof of ... see [1]". "We will see in the next section" is fine, though, as it includes the readers. –  Hans Adler Jul 26 at 21:25

12 Answers 12

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Use of pronouns like "I" and "me" in a narrative will tend to cast the writer as the protagonist. Use of other forms such as "yours truly" or non-reflexive "myself" tends to cast the author into a "supporting character" role.

Suppose someone is writing about Mr. Smith's performance in a chess tournament and, after saying "In round one, Mr. Smith played against Alec Jones" and describing his performance in that round, went on to say "In round two, Mr. Smith played against me". A reader might expect the description of the round to be focused on the writer, rather than on Mr. Smith. If instead the text had been "In round two, Mr. Smith played against yours truly."

Some people cringe at non-reflexive usages of "myself". I personally don't find them objectionable when used in either the imperative or passive voice, with the purpose of suggesting semantic equivalence between the person writing or speaking and others. For example, if Mr. Smith asks people "Please submit reports to Mrs. Robinson, Mrs. Jones, or to me", that would suggest that submissions to him would be perceived differently. Using the non-reflexive "...or to myself" would suggest that the set of people to whom forms may be submitted includes him, but he has no special significance within that set.

Even though the non-reflexive "myself" is often useful, there are many places where it just doesn't work, especially with the active voice, or when used with verbs that would be amenable to reflexive usage. For narrative situations, "yours truly" is concise but effective; it conveys no implication that the character in the story were affected by the fact that they would later be written about. By contrast, "this author" implies that the writer's status as an author was significant to the events described.

What's important is to recognize that there are many ways an author can refer to himself, and usage of forms other than simple first-person pronouns is not merely a matter of being "cute", but often carries somewhat different meanings and implications.

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If in the second round, Mr. Smith played against the author, any circumlocution like "yours truly" or even "the author" will sound like just that: a circumlocution, and thus awkward and unprofessional. In such a situation, any semi-competent author will use "me", period end of story. –  Martha Jul 25 at 21:47
    
Is there any source for acceptability of a non-reflexive meaning of "myself"? –  Ari Brodsky Jul 27 at 7:21

Many competent writers will challenge the assertion that "the perpendicular pronoun" (I) really needs to be avoided. Others seem to believe that only third person is acceptable, or that no person should ever be mentioned unless specifically talking about people.

My own take is that this is all a matter of style, and whatever you pick -- as long as it sounds natural and you're consistent about it -- is probably fine. If I'm writing for my employer, I'll follow my employer's style guidelines. If I'm writing for publication, I'll follow the publication's preferences. If I'm writing without those constraints, my writing is generally only slightly more formal than my speech.

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Competence precludes finding oneself needing to mean "I" but having to say "this writer" - or, variously:

  • the author
  • your correspondent
  • this ink-stained wretch (please, no!)

TBH, the form hardly matters - silk purses and sow's ears, etc.

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Exactly. A genuinely expert writer avoids introducing himself into a literary context where his presence is deprecated. An essay is like any other social occasion. If you belong there, you may introduce yourself in the first person without offense. If you don't belong there, you shouldn't be trying to sneak in unnoticed by pretending to be somebody else. –  StoneyB Jul 25 at 4:54
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I used to favor "your humble narrator" for a while. Then I decided I wasn't all that humble and often wasn't narrating. –  keshlam Jul 25 at 5:16
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I agree with StoneyB. If I have a reason to write about myself, then I'll use "I" (and "me", "my", etc.). If I don't have a reason to write about myself, I won't. –  Andreas Blass Jul 25 at 16:55

In science, it is quite common to use "we" instead of "I" even if there is only one author.

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In maths, "we can see" or whatever can imply "You, the reader, and I", which I think is quite nice. –  GKFX Jul 25 at 13:04
    
True, that is another meaning of the scientific "we". –  painfulenglish Jul 25 at 13:36
    
In science it is common because most papers are published by two or more authors! So the impression that "we" is common might be a false one. In my experience, single authors always refer to themselves as "I" in the natural sciences. –  what Jul 28 at 9:14
    
There definitely are single-author papers which use "we". However, people sometimes feel uncomfortable using this form, and change everything to passive voice to avoid it. –  painfulenglish Jul 29 at 6:45
    
Formally this is called 'royal we', which has uncomfortably arrogant connotations, although I agree, it's used. –  Jeff-Inventor ChromeOS Aug 13 at 5:38

It seems to depend on the context, and even more so on the type of writing. Some answers have addressed it, it's strange that none have aggregated different scenarios where one would want to avoid referring to oneself directly.

  1. In journalism, it's generally frowned upon to use "I." I've seen many cases of "your correspondent" in most of the articles I read. "Your author" is also possible, though maybe not so much for journalism.
  2. In most scientific cases, authors sometimes avoid using a reference to themselves entirely by using the passive voice. I found that this is common here.
  3. In other academic scenarios, many do use "I" but I've seen many research papers which use "we" even when referring to the single author. Mathematic proofs, for example, always say "we know that..." or "we can see from ... that..."

Of course it's always good to do a bit of research on the particular scenario in which you are.

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As commented above, the mathematical "we" means "the author and the reader", so it's certainly appropriate even with only one author. –  Steve Jessop Jul 26 at 9:39
    
I disagree. Both meanings exists. When I write "We studied problem x" in a paper, I mean me and possibly my co-authors, but certainly not the reader. I'm quite sure many other scientists use "we" in this way. –  painfulenglish Jul 28 at 17:19

I see two main contexts:

  1. The author of the work is also relevant to the subject under discussion. Then the author should use the third person and a name. "Reports must be submitted in triplicate to both Itsme and Steve Jessop". "Mr. Jessop has responsibility for X, whereas Itsme handles Y". It might matter which of us wrote that text, we might have collaborated on it. Someone who cares can check the top of the document, but it's not relevant to the matter at hand, so let's not mess about identifying professional responsibilities relative to authorship of the document.

  2. The author wants to personalize the authorial voice. This generally isn't what you want in formal writing, but might be done from an excess of ego or an excess of honesty that you're writing a personal opinion or experience.

In this case, assuming you want to avoid "I", then you say "the author", "this author", "this reviewer", "this observer", and so on. Identify the role whose point of view you're trying to inject. So for example a journalist who attended a political event might first lay out the facts in the usual way, and then mention "this observer" when giving a more subjective view: "Following the speeches a fistfight occurred, but this observer was unable to determine who started it" makes clear that even to those in the room it was not necessarily obvious what was going on.

Whether you should want to avoid "I" at all is probably outside the scope of the question, but personally I think it depends in large part on whether you think the reader knows or cares who is addressing them. Extreme case, a newspaper report with no by-line shouldn't use "I", because the reader can't know who that is even if they want to. Even with a by-line, a reporter's style avoids it. An opinion piece has a lot more scope to use "I".

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For things like memos which, while written by people, are supposed to speak in the voice of the company those people are representing, it is entirely appropriate for the author to refer to himself by name just as would anyone else. In cases where the author has a personal voice, however, such a thing might prompt readers to wonder whether the author and the person identified were the same person, or whether the text was actually written by the claimed author; such distractions might be avoided if you refer to yourself as "Steve Jessop (yours truly)". –  supercat Jul 27 at 17:30
    
Well, "yours truly" to mean "me" is awful, but that's a matter of taste since it's entirely comprehensible. Anyway in writing it's just an indirect way of saying "the author" or "your correspondent", i.e. it's the person who would sign off a letter "yours truly". –  Steve Jessop Jul 28 at 10:22

This writer is correct.

For example:

Exercise has many benefits. Proponents of exercise find there is a large variety of exercise options to fit different lifestyles. Barack Obama goes running in the morning. Jane Doe attends a weekly dancing class. I myself do press ups and stomach crunches in between writing stints through out the day.

The writer can remove the first person perspective by replace 'I myself' with 'this writer'.

Exercise has many benefits. Proponents of exercise find there is a large variety of exercise options to fit different lifestyles. Barack Obama goes running in the morning. Jane Doe attends a weekly dancing class.This writer does press ups and stomach crunches in between writing stints through his writing day.

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What evidence do you have to proclaim it as "correct"? –  curiousdannii Jul 27 at 0:45
    
Why not, "Press ups and stomach crunches can be accomplished in between writing stints throughout the day"? Or, "in between performing sedentary tasks..."? –  user26732 Aug 12 at 19:45

In the natural sciences, the use of the personal pronouns "I" (for one author) and "we" (for two or more authors) is perfectly fine. In fact, you must use these pronouns, if you refer to yourself!

For example the Manual (2009) of the American Psychological Association clearly states (pp. 69-70):

Attribution. Inappropriately or illogically attribution action in an effort to be objective can be misleading. Examples of undesirable attribution include use of the third person, anthropomorphism, and use of the editorial we.

Third person. To avoid ambiguity, use a personal pronoun rather than the thrid person when describing steps taken in your experiment.

Correct:
We reviewed the literature.
Incorrect:
The authors reviewed the literature.

Anthropomorphism. Do not attribute human characteristics to animals or to inanimate sources.

Correct:
The staff for the community program was persuaded to allow ...
Incorrect:
The community program was persuaded to allow ...

An experiment cannot attempt to demonstrate, control unwanted variables, or interpret findings, nor can tables or figures compare (all of these can, however, show or indicate). Use a pronoun or an appropriate noun as the subject of these verbs. I or we (meaning the author or authors) can replace the experiment.

Editorial we. For clarity, restrict your use of we to refer only to yourself and your coauthors (use I if you are the sole author of the paper). Broader uses of we may leave your readers wondering to whom you are referring; instead substitute an appropriate noun or clarify your usage:

Correct:
As behaviorists, we tend to dispute ...
Incorrect:
We tend to dispute ...

The fundamental rule of all APA syle are "precision and clarity" (p. 68):

"Make certain that every word means exactly what you intend it to mean."


See also this post in the APA Style Blog: Use of First Person in APA Style.

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If the work has a list of references, then refer one can refer to the reference as if referring to any one else's reference. As an alternative, one can refer to the name of the content of what they want to reference instead of using the attribution of the content's creator (ie, "I").

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In legal writing there is an easy answer: you refer to the roles played rather than the individuals who undertook them. So if you are writing a brief and complaining that the judge did something you didn't like, you wouldn't write, "the judge did not let me present evidence" but, "counsel for plaintiff was prevented from presenting evidence." Because in this context personalities do not matter.

While this question is directed towards non-fiction, the winds of what the French call "autofiction" are blowing and I think we will see a greater use of the first person in all types of writing. Even though Rimbaud famously wrote, "Je est un autre." (I is someone else.)

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If the writer is truly an expert, then they refer to themselves so enigmatically that they set the 2000-year-old standard for how to subtly promote oneself:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disciple_whom_Jesus_loved

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Use "I" all you want. I was taught the same thing in school: "don't use "I" because of whatever". That's total BS.

If you haven't already, read "Journey to the End of the Night" by Celine, one of the best books in French literature. You'll see how you can write a masterpiece not just using "I" everywhere, but also making intentional grammar/syntax errors in every other sentence!

PS: the book is translated from the French at Project Nutenberg, for free...

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Welcome to ELU.SE. I don't believe it's all that convincing to explain something you believe to be the case in English by referring to French literature, I'm afraid. "Don't bother" might be a reasonable answer, but needs some English substantiation. –  Andrew Leach Jul 26 at 13:23
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The pleasure is all mine. I am afraid that you are wrong though. The fact that the book is French is completely irrelevant for this conversation. It is for the exact same reason the word "I" should be avoided in French as it is in English. Furthermore, I was not referring to "Voyage jusqu'au bout de la nuit", but to its English translation "Journey to the End of the Night". –  user83260 Jul 26 at 16:29

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