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Can you use the first person pronouns ‘I’ and ‘we’ in a report?
Author : Catie Holdridge
Posted : 12 / 01 / 23
Should we show up in our own business writing?
The question of whether it’s OK to use first person pronouns like ‘I’ and ‘we’ in business reports is a common one. (We know this because it comes up often on our courses.)
The short answer is ‘yes’. But that isn’t the full answer. Read on for the all-important detail.
The first person pronouns are ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘my’, ‘mine’ (singular) and ‘we’, ‘us’, ‘our’, ‘ours’ (plural).
Further and higher education often instruct us to avoid using these words in reports. The goal here is to encourage us to think objectively. And removing the ‘I’ shifts focus from the writer onto the work. Teachers and lecturers also like to encourage students to habitually provide supporting evidence rather than just spouting unverified opinions.
All of which is entirely reasonable. But it means that by the time we enter the professional world, it feels alien or downright wrong to lay claim to anything we write with an ‘I’ or a ‘we’.
There’s no reason to follow a rule in business writing only because of an academic legacy. In fact, there are many ways that good business writing differs from typical academic writing. (Meanwhile, there’s also some support for students making thoughtful use of the first person in their academic writing, such as in this paper from Duke University in the US.)
Writing at work is much less about exploring ideas for their own sake and much more about getting stuff done. How we write has to reflect this. So, our writing should be as easy as possible to understand and usually needs to deliver key messages up front. It should be written with the target audience in mind. And, ideally, it should be engaging enough to keep people from giving up.
Our training and consultancy work is all about how to create this sort of writing. So let’s turn to a few members of our expert team for their responses to this question.
‘It’s fine to use “we” in a report if you’re clear on who “we” refers to,’ says our consultant and trainer Melissa Melly. ‘I wouldn’t generally advocate using “I”. Context is everything, though, so it depends.’
David Cameron, another of our consultants, agrees: ‘I tend to advise against using “I” in reports unless the writer is an acknowledged expert who is providing direct advice. I did this a few times in my in-house days [at the Environment Agency] when I was asked specifically to provide advice to the board. But I’d regard the first person as essential in engaging business writing.’
It’s easy to think of writing at work as purely functional. But for any business writing to do its job, a human being needs to actually engage with it. And a great principle to remember here is that we humans tend to be most interested – and best able to understand – when we read writing that:
People doing things (rather than things simply happening) is essentially the active voice. This grammatical construction builds information in this order:
Subject (or ‘doer’) + verb (the ‘doer’/subject’s action) + object (the thing or person the action happened to).
Bernice (‘doer’/subject) filed (verb/action) the paperwork (object or receiver of the action).
Think about the opposite approach: the passive. This puts the subject (or ‘doer’) of the sentence after the thing that was done. Or it allows the writer to remove the ‘doer’ from the sentence altogether.
The paperwork was filed by Bernice.
Yes, it’s true that knowing who took a particular action isn’t always relevant. But when we needlessly remove ‘doers’ from sentences, activities become shrouded in mystery or ambiguity. Who took this action? Do we understand their level of expertise? Do we trust their judgement?
For example, compare:
Since the consultation period concluded and all evidence and data were reviewed, a new risk management process has now been implemented.
We ran a consultation period with Organisation X in June 2022. Their team reviewed the data alongside our in-house subject matter experts. As a result, we‘ve brought in a new risk management process. This process involves …
The second version is longer, but it is also clearer. It’s more specific and transparent. Arguably, it’s more interesting.
When it comes to style choices, there’s usually a bit of nuance to any answer. Here’s the fine print on that initial ‘yes’.
If you have style guidance in your organisation, it may cover whether you should avoid using ‘I’ and ‘we’ in your reports.
Using the first person (or not) is one element among many that shapes a company’s brand voice, so you may find a strong opinion either for it or against it.
Some argue that the more formal a report, the less you should include supposedly informal choices like using the first person.
It is always important to consider your audience (and your purpose) as you write. And if you’re convinced that using the first person would rub the reader the wrong way, there are ways to omit it without leaning too much on the passive. More on that in a moment.
But we’d also encourage you to challenge your assumptions! For example, here is an Environment Agency annual report that our consultant David Cameron co-wrote during his time there. It had a pretty lofty audience.
‘It’s the formal report to the House of Commons on performance and spending,’ explains David. ‘There’s a lot of “we” in it. I didn’t get any complaints about it from the House of Commons or anyone else.’
You can also see the same use of ‘we’ in the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office’s 2020–2021 annual report.
If your organisation insists on avoiding the use of the first person in reports, you don’t always need to fall back on the passive voice.
You can refer to those behind the report in the third person:
If you do use these, take a moment to observe the effect. Does the writing sound more detached, more formal? Is that what you want?
Alternatively, you can use documents and data as the ‘doers‘:
Indeed, even when you can use ‘we’, it doesn’t mean you have to use it at every opportunity. You may want to emphasise that empirical evidence has directed you to a conclusion. In this case, using ‘the research’ or ‘the data’ as the ‘doer‘ is a good idea whether you’re avoiding using ‘we’ or not.
Where you have the option to include or exclude the first person from your writing, try out both ways of phrasing some sentences.
Notice how each option creates a shift in focus, a different tone, or a new level of clarity. Then make your choice in each case to create the document you want. It can be surprising the effect that an unassuming little word like ‘we’ can have.
Image credit: Kues / Shutterstock
Catie joined Emphasis with an English literature and creative writing degree and a keen interest in what makes language work. Having researched, written, commissioned and edited dozens of articles for the Emphasis blog, she now knows more about the intricacies of effective professional writing than she ever thought possible.
She produced and co-wrote our online training programme, The Complete Business Writer, and these days oversees all the Emphasis marketing efforts. And she keeps office repartee at a suitably literary level.
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