Some background. I am currently in the editing phase of my dissertation and I have no clue what 'tense?'/'personage?'/writing 'style?' I have used.

For example consider the sentence, "In this chapter we derive the boundary layer equations." I have opted to write in 'third person?' , "The boundary layer equations are derived in this chapter." So essentially I have removed pronouns and put it into some form of past tense as the work has been done. I preferred writing this way in my dissertation as I felt that "we (or I) derive" sounds like it's currently being done (right now) which felt unnatural to me.

However, I have run into 2 slight problems. 1) I can't identify this writing style if I need to google some help with it. 2) I have a sentence I don't know how to write in this style.

The sentence is "To the best of our knowledge, no such derivation exists." Maybe a derivation does exist, but we can't find one.

I wrote it as "It is currently unknown if such a derivation exists." However, I feel this has a meaning of 'nobody knows if it exists' whereas it's really just me and my supervisors.

What is this style of writing called? Have I correctly written my sentence and I am just overthinking it?

  • 2
    Way overthinking it.
    – Weckar E.
    Commented Mar 7, 2020 at 12:42
  • 4
    Isn't that just the passive voice? (Although I don't see what would be so bad about including the authors as "we".)
    – Llewellyn
    Commented Mar 7, 2020 at 15:46
  • 1
    @Llewellyn YES! Passive voice, thank you so much. With regards to using "we", I feel the emphasis should be on the work regardless of who did it. i.e. It's more important that a derivation doesn't seem to exist rather than us not knowing.
    – Kendall
    Commented Mar 7, 2020 at 18:44
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    Instead of "we", use "the writers" or "the present writers" or "the authors" (etc), which enables a reformulation such as "It is currently unknown by the present writers whether such a derivation exists", or (better) "The present writers are unaware of any such derivation." To get a sense of the preferred style, look through some frequently-referenced papers in this particular field and take careful note of how they formulate such sentences. Also, your faculty/department will almost certainly recommend a specific Style Guide that they prefer you to follow. Commented Mar 8, 2020 at 0:47
  • 1
    There are significantly different ways that papers incorporate references, and faculties will usually define which method to use by nominating a known standard, e.g. MLA, APA, Oxford. If you ask them which referencing style is required, you can then simply adopt the whole style guide to ensure consistency on other matters such as voice. See also this useful list of guides. :-) Commented Mar 12, 2020 at 0:35

1 Answer 1


Yes, you are overthinking it. Unless you have been instructed to do so, you need not identify the writing style you are using or find the proper name for it. In my academic writing on the Masters level and for an academic social work journal, no one indicated that this was necessary. However, getting rid of the pronouns might help you clean up your writing. I agree with your observation:

I wrote it as "It is currently unknown if such a derivation exists." However, I feel this has a meaning of 'nobody knows if it exists' whereas it's really just me and my supervisors.

As you note, you don't want to speak for the entire academic community when you know only the position of yourself and your supervisors. However, you can "hedge your bets" by delineating the basis on which "It is currently unknown." I assume your statement is based on one or more of the following:

  • lectures and the literature of your discipline
  • your own studies and/or experimentation

If it is based on the literature, name the authors and their studies, etc. If based on your own studies and/or experimentation, list them. Rephrase your statement along these lines:

Based on [insert your basis], it is currently unknown..."

You also ask whether to use past or present tense, based on what "feels right." If you are going to opt for the traditional writing style where no pronouns are used, you will also want to write in the past tense that goes with it. Present tense for the sake of comfort may have worked fine so far but for the professional polish I think you want to go with past tense. After all, the experiments and studies are now in the past, if you need to justify it to your feelings.

  • 1
    Thank you for this answer. The main goal of identifying the writing style was for me to check my own writing consistency. It's not easy to google an answer when you don't know what to google for. Perfect, I completely agree on the past tense. Been spending these last few days doing exactly that; polishing the English, tenses and voice.
    – Kendall
    Commented Mar 13, 2020 at 12:43

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