Writing objectively How and when to use an impersonal tone

Academic writing is generally impersonal and objective in tone. This section considers what objective writing is, how objective academic writing is, then presents several ways to make your writing more objective. There is also a checklist at the end, that you can use to check the objectivity of your own writing.


What is objective writing?

Objective writing places the emphasis on facts, information and arguments, and can be contrasted with subjective writing which relates to personal feelings and biases. Objective writing uses third person pronouns (it, he, she, they), in contrast to subjective writing which uses first person pronouns (I, we) or second person pronoun (you).

How objective is academic writing?

Although many academic writers believe that objectivity is an essential feature of academic writing, conventions are changing and how much this is true depends on the subject of study. An objective, impersonal tone remains essential in the natural sciences (chemistry, biology, physics), which deal with quantitative (i.e. numerical) methods and data. In such subjects, the research is written from the perspective of an impartial observer, who has no emotional connection to the research. Use of a more subjective tone is increasingly acceptable in areas such as naturalist research, business, management, literary studies, theology and philosophical writing, which tend to make greater use of qualitative rather than quantitative data. Reflective writing is increasingly used on university courses and is highly subjective in nature.

How to write objectively

There are many aspects of writing which contribute to an objective tone. The following are some of the main ones.


Use of passive

Objective tone is most often connected with the use of passive, which removes the actor from the sentence. For example:

  • The experiment was conducted.
  • The length of the string was measured using a ruler.
  • I conducted the experiment.
  • I measured the length of the string with a ruler.

Most academic writers agree that passive should not be overused, and it is generally preferrable for writing to use the active instead, though this is not always possible if the tone is to remain impersonal without use of I or other pronouns. There are, however, a special groups of verbs in English called ergative verbs, which are used in the active voice without the actor of the sentence. Examples are dissolve, increase, decrease, lower, and start. For example:

  • The white powder dissolved in the liquid.
  • The tax rate increased in 2010.
  • The building work started six months ago.
  • I dissolved the white powder in the liquid.
  • The white powder was dissolved in the liquid.
  • We increased the tax rate in 2010.
  • The tax rate was increased in 2010.
  • The workers started the building work six months ago.
  • The building work was started six months ago.


Focus on the evidence

Another way to use active voice while remaining objective is to focus on the evidence, and make this the subject of the sentence. For example:

  • The findings show...
  • The data illustrate...
  • The graph displays...
  • The literature indicates...

Use evidence from sources

Evidence from sources is a common feature of objective academic writing. This generally uses the third person active. For example:

  • Newbold (2021) shows that... He further demonstrates the relationship between...
  • Greene and Atwood (2013) suggest that...

Use impersonal constructions

Impersonal constructions with It and There are common ways to write objectively. These structures are often used with hedges (to soften the information) and boosters (to strengthen it). This kind of language allows the writer to show how strongly they feel about the information, without using emotive language, which should be avoided in academic writing.

  • It is clear that... (booster)
  • It appears that... (hedge)
  • There are three reasons for this.
  • There are several disadvantages of this approach.
  • I believe that...
  • I have identified three reasons for this.
  • This is a terrible idea.

Personify the writing

Another way to write objectively is to personify the writing (essay, report, etc.) and make this the subject of the sentence.

  • This essay considers the role of diesel emissions in global warming.
  • This report has shown that...
  • I will discuss the role of diesel emissions in global warming.
  • I have shown that...

Summary

In short, objective writing means focusing on the information and evidence. While it remains a common feature of academic writing, especially in natural sciences, a subjective tone is increasingly acceptable in fields which make use of qualitative data, as well as in reflective writing. Objectivity in writing can be achieved by:

  • using passive;
  • focusing on the evidence (The findings show...);
  • referring to sources (Newbold (2021) shows...);
  • using impersonal constructions with It and There;
  • using hedges and boosters to show strength of feeling, rather than emotive language;
  • personifying the writing (This report shows...).


  • References

    Bailey, S. (2000). Academic Writing. Abingdon: RoutledgeFalmer


    Bennett, K. (2009) 'English academic style manuals: A survey', Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 8 (2009) 43-54.


    Cottrell, S. (2013). The Study Skills Handbook (4th ed.), Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.


    Hinkel, E. (2004). Teaching Academic ESL Writing: Practical Techniques in Vocabulary and Grammar. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc Publishers.


    Hyland, K. (2006) English for Academic Purposes: An advanced resource book. Abingdon: Routledge.


    Jordan, R. R. (1997) English for academic purposes: A guide and resource book for teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.




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    Checklist

    Below is a checklist for using objectivity in academic writing. Use it to check your writing, or as a peer to help. Note: you do not need to use all the ways given here.


    Item OK? Comment
    The writing is objective in tone.
    The writing uses passive to avoid personal pronouns (e.g. The experiment was conducted). Passive is not overused.
    The writing focuses on the evidence (e.g. The findings show...).
    The writing uses evidence from sources and third person pronouns (e.g. Newbold (2021) shows that... He further demonstrates...).
    The writing uses impersonal constructions with It and There.
    The writing uses personification (e.g. This report has shown).

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Sheldon Smith

Author: Sheldon Smith    ‖    Last modified: 07 December 2021.

Sheldon Smith is the founder and editor of EAPFoundation.com. He has been teaching English for Academic Purposes since 2004. Find out more about him in the about section and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.



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