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First Person Pronouns (I and We) in Reports

Elizabeth, who works for a nonprofit agency, phoned the other day for help on a report. She was writing the report to explain how her program had used a financial grant to partner with another agency to provide services.

Elizabeth was stumbling over we in the document. The pronoun seemed too folksy for a formal report to the funding agency. However, it was better than the alternative, which was to continually name the two program managers, in words like these: “the regional training coordinator and the Washington State director of the family planning program.” Elizabeth’s question was this:

Are there any alternatives to using we or continually naming the two partners?

The answer is yes. One solution is for Elizabeth to name the two partners (as above) and then use “the partners” throughout. So instead of repeatedly saying “We did this and accomplished that,” she will write “The partners did this and accomplished that.” When she is describing just one of the partners, she can name that partner.

If the report gets long, she can name the partnership again. For example, on page 3 she might say “This partnership of the regional training coordinator and the Washington State director of the family planning program successfully led to . . . .”

Elizabeth was happy with that approach.

In a recent writing seminar, Kim, a scientist in research and development, asked a question similar to Elizabeth’s. He wanted to know how to avoid using I and we while also avoiding passive verbs. For example, how could he avoid repeatedly using a construction like “We conducted the experiment” without using the passive “The experiment was conducted”?

The wording depends on the situation, of course. Here are possibilities:

The experiment took place on . . . .
The experiment showed . . . .
The experiment involved. . . .
During the experiment, several facts came to light.

Kim also wanted to avoid using I when making recommendations. He wanted to avoid calling attention to himself.

One way Kim might communicate his recommendation is this:

Recommendation: [followed by whatever Kim recommends]

Or maybe this:

The research above suggests this recommendation:

Elizabeth and Kim are correct in thinking that sometimes first-person pronouns (I, my, we, our) don’t fit the document. Maybe those words feel informal, or maybe they call attention to the messenger rather than the message.

If leaving out first-person pronouns is your goal, you might be surprised how easy it is. For example, this blog entry uses no first-person pronouns except when referring to them as examples. An earlier draft did use I, me, and my, but it was easy to eliminate them.

What do you think? Did you notice the absence of I, my, me, and we?  Did it seem a bit formal and reserved? That is exactly the tone many reports require.


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.