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  How using personal or   impersonal affects your work

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Development Level Advice

How using personal or impersonal affects your work

Why is this important?

It is very important to check with your tutors what is wanted, before you start work.

  • In many academic areas (e.g. in some scientific and engineering areas) and for some types of academic work, it is not acceptable to write in the personal style. These tend to be areas where you must be precise and objective. Here, you write in the impersonal/3rd person style.
  • In some academic subjects, tutors like students to use the personal style. This tends to be where personal experience or attitudes are significant (e.g. social care, some arts areas).
  • You may have a choice of which to use. The following should help you see the differences and what might be appropriate when.
What is the difference between them?

For guidance on the difference between personal/impersonal/3rd person see Main Rules of Written English at Starter Level.

Example

Personal (active)
I slammed the door.

3rd person (active)
He slammed the door.

Passive
The door was slammed.

What different impressions do they make?
  • Personal is more direct, more powerful. The reader tends to feel more involved.
  • Impersonal/3rd person is more considered, more restrained.

Example

In the following, the words are almost the same, but the two versions have a different effect. The first is more likely to gain sympathy from the reader.
Personal
I hurt my finger badly.

Impersonal (passive)
The finger was hurt badly.

The personal style can be easier to read as it usually uses fewer words.

Example

Here, the personal version is shorter.
Personal
I let the handbrake off and the car ran away.

Impersonal (3rd person/passive)
The handbrake was released by the driver, causing the car to run away.

Consistency

If you must use the impersonal/3rd person, you must be consistent and not use the personal at all. See personal/impersonal/3rd person in Main Rules of Written English at Starter Level.

Example

If the impersonal/3rd person is needed in your work this would be incorrect.
*The test tube was warmed on the Bunsen burner. I then emptied the contents....

This is correct.
The test tube was warmed on the Bunsen burner. The contents were then emptied....

If you write in the personal style, you can include passives, but you need to consider the balance.

  • If you want a piece of work to be personal most of it should be so.
  • If most of a piece of work is impersonal/3rd person, the reader may think your personal parts are just inconsistencies.

© Learning & Teaching Institute, Sheffield Hallam University 2004