Writing in Third Person in APA Style
As the sixth edition of 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.
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" and "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." Good writing typically begins in one point of view and retains that perspective throughout in order to avoid confusion for the reader.
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. For example, "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.
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.
One of the most significant grammatical issues involving the third person point of view is pronoun use. 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.
Kristie Sweet has been writing professionally since 1982, most recently publishing for various websites on topics like health and wellness, and education. She holds a Master of Arts in English from the University of Northern Colorado.