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I encounter non-fiction books written by a single author who uses the first person plural to disclose findings: "we found that this and that happened" or "we already discussed such and such in chapter one" or "we are interested in finding out why that is"

Does this obfuscate the facts by talking of your single self in the plural or is this preferable for discernible reasons? I am editing a book on philosophy right now and have written it from the first person singular but am sensing some grace, elegance and perhaps respectability that might come from shifting to the third plural.

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    It is always better to not mention yourself at all. "It was found that..." etc.
    – Chenmunka
    Sep 29, 2023 at 21:33
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    I strongly disagree with @Chenmunka. To my ear, the passive voice—when employed for no better reason than avoiding the first person—sounds clumsy and indirect, sometimes ambiguous, and occasionally evasive. If it’s your opinions, conclusions, attitudes, etc. that you’re expressing, then be forthright enough to explicitly own them. If you’re concerned that discussing results and accomplishments in first-person singular may sound immodest, then the first-person plural is an option in many disciplines. Sep 29, 2023 at 21:48

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In computer science, at least, where I have published several papers; it is common to use "We", even if the paper has only one author.

This is partly tradition, but my advisor said we do it for the same reason we teach classes that way: On the whiteboard (or a slide show), as the only teacher and the only one writing, you still say to the class, "Now we are going to apply an elliptic transformation to this formula..."

It is inclusive; it implies you and the person you are teaching are a team working together.

When we are teaching a child, we often do the same thing: "Okay, good! Now what do we do next?" Even though you are referring to them alone.

A distinction here is we see some papers that will say "You will notice that these values are asymptotic to a parabolic function..."

But that could always be changed to "We notice that these values are asymptotic to a parabolic function..."

This is a style choice in computer science (which is usually involving math and algorithms), we adopt this inclusive teaching style, whether it is a sole author or a dozen authors.

Off and on I've read academic papers in mathematics, statistics, physics and engineering, often related to CS, but I don't recall their style.

Another effect, I think, is it prevents the perception of braggadocio and self-promotion. "I" can sound self-promoting, While "You" and "We" tones that down.

Another approach in CS is avoiding a designation altogether. "Clearly, these two functions are proportional..."

"Notice the lower curve in Figure 3 is asymptotic to the upper curve."

"After cancellation, the only variable remaining is 'c'. which can now be computed directly."

Stuff like that.

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Plural “we” may be used in scholarly works in several ways:

  1. By a single author to refer to him- or herself. This is called pluralis auctoris. It once was the convention and is still found in older texts, but is considered bad style today.*

    The APA recommends:

    • If you are writing a paper by yourself, use the pronoun “I” to refer to yourself.
    • If you are writing a paper with coauthors, use the pronoun “we” to refer yourself and your coauthors together.
    • Do not use the third person to refer to yourself.

    The Chicago Manual of Style recommends using “I” to refer to a single author also, as does the MLA.

  2. By several authors to refer to themselves.

  3. By a single author to refer to the team that did the research that he or she reports on (“My team found that a chemical we were studying for other reasons had the ability to make mice fat.” Bruce Blumberg, The Obesogen Effect).

  4. To include the reader (“As we can see...”).

  5. To refer to all humans (“We all sometimes feel beset by insoluble problems...” Roy F. Baumeister, Willpower).

The different uses, especially the difference between nos. 1, 3, 4, and 5, should be clear from the context.


* As Paul Tanenbaum has rightfully pointed out in a comment below, the pluralis auctoris (or pluralis modestiae) is still to be found in certain fields such as mathematics and computer science.

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    In mathematics it is quite common and perfectly acceptable for a single author to use first-person plural. Sep 29, 2023 at 21:51
  • @PaulTanenbaum Which leads to such curiosities as this: "In this section I avoid the pluralis auctoris used in the rest of the thesis, in order to make clear which contributions were my own and which ones were the collective work of several members of the Naproche group." Marcos Cramer, Proof-checking mathematical texts in controlled natural language
    – Ben
    Sep 29, 2023 at 21:55
  • Indeed, @user482877, I like your example of a complication. By the way, I’m not sure if it’s actually pluralis auctoris or pluralis modestiæ. But I guess that’s wandering off topic. Sep 29, 2023 at 21:59
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    @PaulTanenbaum In a course book on mathematics and chemistry for students of engineering at the university of Leuven, the authors explain why it is to be considered pluralis auctoris: "We honour the somewhat bizarre mathematical writing style of the pluralis auctoris: 'we will calculate...', 'we will discuss...' etc. This suggests generality of what is being written, and invites the reader to go along with the reasoning." (kuleuven.be/campussen/campus-groep-t-leuven/studeren/…)
    – Ben
    Sep 29, 2023 at 22:07

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