Writing in Third Person in APA Style

As the "Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association" attests, style and tone are important elements of APA papers and publications since they affect how a reader understands information. Point of view is one of the elements that can determine how information is received by a reader.

Style Changes in the seventh edition of the APA Manual:

  • Use “they” for a person whose gender is unknown or irrelevant.
  • Use non-human relative pronouns like “that,” and “which” for inanimate objects and animals -- rather than use “who.”
  • Use "they" for a person who uses “they” as their personal pronoun. Plural verbs even when "they" is referring to a single person or entity:

They are a great artist​ is preferred rather than ​They is a great artist.

Bias-Free Language

Use “person-first” language whenever possible.

A man with leprosy ​rather than ​A leper

Avoid using adjectives as nouns to describe groups of people: use ​the people who are ill​ rather than ​the sick.

First, Second and Third Person Definitions

Three different points of view exist: first person, second person and third person. First person reflects the writer's voice with pronouns such as:

  • I
  • me
  • we
  • us

Second person speaks directly to a reader, using pronouns such as "you" and "your."

Third person uses a more general voice that reflects neither the writer nor reader specifically, using words like "students" and "participants" and pronouns such as "he," "they" and "it."

Note

Good writing typically begins in one point of view and retains that perspective throughout in order to avoid confusion for the reader.

Use third person for formal writing

Most formal writing, including APA papers, uses the third person point of view. Third person makes ideas sound less subjective since it removes direct reference to the writer. It also creates a more generalized statement.

"Researchers first need to determine participants" (written in the third person) conveys a more formal, objective tone than "You first need to determine participants" (second person) and "I first needed to determine participants" (first person).

Instructors, institutions and publishers generally require writing in the third person to maintain a more formal tone.

Be comfortable with exceptions

The APA manual explains that third person may not always be appropriate in APA papers. When describing activities you performed in your research or when third person language may confuse the reader, use first person instead.

For instance, after a reference to an outside source, if you then write, "The author developed the program," your reader cannot be certain if "the author" refers to the referenced source or yourself. Using the first person in such cases clarifies your intention.

Watch your grammar

Pronoun use is a significant grammatical issue involving the third person point of view. Pronouns must agree in number with the nouns they refer to. For instance, for the plural noun "participants" and the pronoun "they" agree in number while "he" does not.

In the third person point of view, writers should use gender-neutral pronouns when appropriate, such as "they." Some writers consider the use of "he or she" awkward, but the use of "they" can lead to agreement issues. When using "they," make certain the antecedent noun is also plural.