Stream: Miscellaneous

Topic: First person pronoun in English papers

view this post on Zulip Yosuke Ito (Oct 02 2021 at 09:15):

Dear Coq uses,
This topic may not directly relate to Coq, but I'd like to ask your opinions.
The other day, I took a lecture on English writing skills on papers. The lecturer said that, when the author of the paper is alone, the first person pronoun should be "I". However, I often see "we" in single-author works in arXiv. Personally, "we" feels natural to me and I have used "we" in mathematical papers. Do you use "I" when you write a paper alone?

view this post on Zulip Théo Winterhalter (Oct 02 2021 at 09:17):

When the venue had double-blind reviewing, I don't think you have the choice and should use "we" for submission. Changing all those back to "I" might not be worth it.

view this post on Zulip Karl Palmskog (Oct 02 2021 at 09:38):

@Théo Winterhalter plenty of serious peer-reviewed single-author papers out there written in the "I" form.

view this post on Zulip Théo Winterhalter (Oct 02 2021 at 09:40):

I only meant that at submission time, for anonymity you should use "we" if the process is double-bind. Shouldn't you? I'm only assuming. In any case, I agree that seeing "I" does not put the seriousness of an article into question for me.

view this post on Zulip Karl Palmskog (Oct 02 2021 at 09:41):

most submissions are not double-blind in science overall. In some parts of computer science, sure, if you submit single author double blind, you should use "we"

view this post on Zulip Théo Winterhalter (Oct 02 2021 at 09:41):

Sure. :)

view this post on Zulip Karl Palmskog (Oct 02 2021 at 09:52):

in general, I'd say "we" is a default most people use, but using "we" for single author can also sound pompous to the reader (the "royal we")

view this post on Zulip Andrés Goens (Oct 02 2021 at 10:44):

Well, it's sometimes also understood as including the reader. 'Let us (you and I) consider' ...

view this post on Zulip Théo Zimmermann (Oct 02 2021 at 11:18):

I think I've already reviewed a double-blind paper which said "I" but I may be misremembering. In any case, it's absolutely not a problem to use "I" in a double-blind review paper. The double-blind process is about not revealing author identity, not about hiding the number of authors. I've also reviewed double-blind papers which explained "the two authors did..." or things like that since it may be useful when describing empirical methodologies.

view this post on Zulip Théo Zimmermann (Oct 02 2021 at 11:20):

When a paper is mathematical or theoretical, I think it's more common indeed to say "we" (to include the reader) but when a paper describes what has been done by the author, using "we" does sound pompous to me. That's why I wrote "I" throughout my thesis (except when we were several authors) but my advisor asked me "are you sure about this choice?".

view this post on Zulip Théo Zimmermann (Oct 02 2021 at 11:20):

In economy, people do not use "we" for single-author papers.

view this post on Zulip Yosuke Ito (Oct 02 2021 at 12:35):

Thank you all for giving me advice! I didn't know that "we" sometimes sound pompous.
The nuance of "we" might depend on the area. The lecturer was specialized in medical science, where empirical methods are usually used. Mathematics is rather more theoretical, so including readers by "we" may sound less unnatural.
In Japanese language, we often omit subjects in official papers. That is why we often get in trouble when writing papers in English. Again, thank you for answering my question.

view this post on Zulip Karl Palmskog (Oct 02 2021 at 12:39):

In 1989, Margaret Thatcher, then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, was met with disdain by some in the press for using the royal we when announcing to reporters that she had become a grandmother in her "We have become a grandmother" statement.

view this post on Zulip Yosuke Ito (Oct 02 2021 at 13:24):

Oh, it is a bit surprising to me that the use of pronouns can trigger a problem in the media. I also learned that the language is strictly tied to the history. Thanks for sharing the link.

view this post on Zulip Ali Caglayan (Oct 05 2021 at 16:56):

In my (limited) experience there are no problems with using "we" in an academic paper even if you are the sole author. It is really a personal preference. Some relevant folklore:

F. D. C. Willard (ca. 1968–1982) was the pen name of a Siamese cat named Chester, who internationally published under this name on physics in scientific journals, once as a co-author and another time as the sole author.
The American physicist and mathematician Jack H. Hetherington, of Michigan State University, in 1975 wanted to publish some of his research results in the field of low-temperature physics in the scientific journal Physical Review Letters. A colleague, to whom he had given his paper for review, pointed out that Hetherington had used the first person plural in his text, and that the journal would reject this form on submissions with a sole author. Rather than take the time to retype the article to use the singular form, or to bring in a co-author, Hetherington decided to invent one.

view this post on Zulip Yosuke Ito (Oct 06 2021 at 11:31):

Thank you, Ali. I'm relieved to hear that, since I used "we" in my academic papers. I'm also interested in the wikipedia page you shared. :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes:

view this post on Zulip Tadeusz Litak (Nov 01 2021 at 15:42):

There is a common confusion between pluralis maiestatis and pluralis modestiae, specifically pluralis auctoris. This distinction can be also phrased as "exclusive nosism" vs. "inclusive nosism".

Pluralis auctoris, in which nosism is used in the expectation that the reader is included in the “we”, is one end of a spectrum of usage that extends to pluralis modestiae (the “modest plural”). In modestiae, the nosism is no more than a polite formulation—the speaker is an expert, and knows that the listener isn’t really part of the “we”, but uses the inclusive construction anyway, so as to soften the impression of giving a lecture.

To make it more specific and down-to-earth: it looks indeed strange to write (in a single-authored paper) "we have not been able to find such a formalization in existing literature" or "to the best of our knowledge, our result is the first of its kind". This indeed looks like "royal we" or pluralis maiestatis. "The author", "the present author", "this author" or simply "I" is what you mean: you are referring to your own efforts, limitations and successes. There are also ways of saying the same more impersonally, such as

A thorough search of the relevant literature yielded only one related article.

suggested by

By contrast, it seems not only correct, but actually advisable to write things like "from X, we obtain Y" or even "in Section 5, we have shown/we are going to show that"... This is pluralis auctoris, a subspecies of pluralis modestiae: you draw the reader into active participation, just like a lecturer trying to make their students [singular "they"] feel that they [plural "they"] are developing the entire proof/argument together.

And of course it is also correct to write things like "We do not have at the moment a proof that P \neq NP". Here, it is not just your personal limitation, it is the situation in which the entire community finds itself in.

view this post on Zulip Yosuke Ito (Nov 03 2021 at 07:39):

@Tadeusz Litak I really appreciate your detail explanation. The concept of "nosism" is what I've learned right now. Also, I am surprised that the usage of "we" is studied in detail from a grammatical point of view.

Last updated: Jun 14 2024 at 19:02 UTC