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For clear and engaging writing, get personal with personal pronouns

I Introduction
II Don’t scare your readers away
III Clear language gets personal
IV First, second, third person
V Moving along with the times
VI Ditching the third person
VII Practice, practice... and more practice
VIII Resist, resist, resist
IX Resources

By Carolyn Wilby, Clear Language @ Work Inc.

I Introduction

Although old habits are hard to break, busting unclear writing styles is well worth the effort. Many of us are unintentionally entrenched in a writing style that creates distance between us and our readers. Then things go downhill from there as this distance often creates a bureaucratic and authoritarian tone. Distance also can add confusion because it makes it unclear who is doing or saying what and to whom. Time to learn some new clear language writing tricks! Make your writing more engaging and easier to read and understand by getting personal by using personal pronouns.

II Don’t scare your readers away

To get into the right headspace, try this. Read your writing out loud. That’s right, out loud; ideally, your writing should reflect how you would like to treat your readers. If you wouldn’t speak to them in a certain tone, then your writing also should not convey that tone. So what do you hear?

  • Bossy?
  • Overly formal?
  • Hostile?
  • Patronizing?
  • Confusing?

If your writing is inadvertently conveying one of these typically unwanted tones, the culprit may be use of the third person. Fortunately, you can train yourself to abandon the third person, and adopt the clear language writing technique of using personal pronouns that reflect the first or second person.

III Clear language gets personal

Here’s how experts describe clear language, which is often referred to as plain language or plain English. “A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.” 1 Similarly, another commonly cited description is “Plain language (also called Plain English) is communication your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it. Language that is plain to one set of readers may not be plain to others. Written material is in plain language if your audience can:

  • Find what they need;
  • Understand what they find; and
  • Use what they find to meet their needs.” 2

You can use a range of clear language/plain language/plain English writing techniques to make your information as easy to read, understand, and act on as possible. Specifically, you can train your brain to banish the third person—in most cases—from most of your writing.

IV First, second, third person

Understanding the difference between the first, second, and third person helps set the foundation for changing what may have become your default writing style of the third person. At the risk of some grammar-speak, here is a quick overview.

First person is from the writer’s perspective, using pronouns like I/me, my/mine, we, us, and our/ours. By contrast, second person directly addresses the reader by using pronouns like you and your/yours. Which brings us to the third person, where the information is conveyed from an outside narrator’s perspective using pronouns like he/him/his, she/her/hers, they, them, their, and its. There’s nothing quite like an example to bring grammar-speak to life:

  • First person: I need to check the dosage on my medication.
  • Second person: You need to check the dosage on your medication.
  • Third person: He or she needs to check the dosage on his or her medication.

As you can see, there is nothing inherently wrong with using the third person. The issues arise depending on what context you use it in. But here’s the catch: for most communications, using the third person alienates and pushes your readers away rather than engaging and drawing them in.

In addition to creating an impersonal or overly strict tone, the third person can unwittingly confuse your readers. This happens because sentences in the third person often rely on what could be considered generic terms. For example, the sentence might use “the patient” and “the organization” rather than second person pronouns like “you” and “we.”

And there’s more—organizations that tend to use the third person in their communications also tend to limit their use of pleasantries like a “please” here and a “thank you” there. This is unfortunate, because these niceties would help lighten up the third person’s impersonal and often authoritarian tone.

V Moving along with the times

So why is it that many of us often default to the third person writing style? This may be the case because many of us literally grew up on a steady diet of academic literature that is notorious for opting for the third person. Indoctrinated in the third person writing style, many of us continued to use this style as we entered work life—and many of us continue to use it today.

In addition, many organizations still have an old-school communications philosophy. This outdated philosophy creates a culture that values the third person writing style; that writing in the third person makes the writer, the organization, and/or the information come across as the ultimate authority—as smart, competent, and professional. However, the reality is that most readers find the third person irritating and confusing or worse, like a strict parent or stuffy teacher telling them off.

Just like the dress code is organizations is becoming more casual, so too is the written word especially with the advent of social media. Today it’s all about having a conversation with your readers. Even with hard copy information where the readers cannot immediately reply, the ideal is that each of your readers feel as though you are speaking directly to them as induvial, not as a target audience. A conversational tone makes your readers feel like they matter and that they are part of the dialogue. Ideally your written information is not talking AT your readers, but is conversing WITH them.

However, an engaging, conversational style doesn’t mean overly casual writing like texting—definitely not. Your writing can still be professional—formal even—but now with a more welcoming inclusive tone. But how? It’s clear language writing to the rescue! Clear language/plain language/plain English writing is often described as “considerate English” because it takes the reader into consideration. And that’s why these writing techniques include using personal pronouns and specific terms rather than generic labels, wherever possible.

VI Ditching the third person

Check out this sentence that is in the third person and uses generic terms with no “please” or “thank you.” Do you see how it’s unclear who is doing what? Also, are you getting a detached, impersonal feeling or, worse, do you feel like you are being punished?

All patients must take medications as she recommends.

Now what about the version below? Do you see how adding the human element by using second person pronouns—as well as replacing generic terms—is still professional but now more personal so it is more engaging? Plus, now it’s more direct; it’s totally clear who is recommending the medication dosage and who should take it properly.

You must take your medications as recommended by your doctor.

Or even better, this option becomes even more specific and polite.

You must take your medications as recommended by Dr. XYZ. Thank you.

VII Practice, practice... and more practice

Where clear language/plain language/plain English writing is concerned, the old expression that practice makes perfect is definitely true. Regarding opportunities to practice, there are loads of examples online of organizations using the third person on their websites. Google around for “Don’ts”—where the third person is creating an unwanted tone or adding confusion. Then try to transform them into “Do’s” by using the second person. Here’s an example of how to practice where we’ve followed the instructions below using underlining.

  1. Circle all areas that use the third person or generic labels.
  2. Change each “Don’t” into a “Do” by replacing the third person writing style with a second person pronoun and also by replacing any generic labels with specific information.
  3. Try throwing in a dash of politeness here and there.

There is no one right answer but rather many ways each transformation could go. That’s where your judgement comes in, depending on the specific context you are writing for.

DON’T

DO

Patients must sign in at reception when they arrive.

You must sign in at our reception when you arrive. Thank you.

The doctor will tell patients what is involved in the treatment.

Doctor XYZ will tell you what is involved in your treatment.

The health clinic manager oversees the website and answers any questions submitted by patients.

Our health clinic manager, Mrs. ABC, oversees our website and answers any questions you submit.

Ask the healthcare provider about potential side effects before the procedure.

Please ask your healthcare provider, Josephine Public, about any side effects before your procedure.

Our organization is committed to helping patients throughout their recovery.

We are committed to helping you throughout your recovery.

 

VIII Resist, resist, resist

Before you know it, the third person will be jumping out at you everywhere. To help you keep from falling back on the old habit of using third person yourself, print out this summary and keep it near your computer as a handy reminder of the benefits of using personal pronouns.

No matter how sophisticated your audience is, if you use personal pro­nouns the clarity of your writing will dramatically improve. Here’s why.

  • First, personal pronouns aid your reader’s comprehension because they clarify what applies to your reader and what applies to you.
  • Second, they allow you to ‘speak’ directly to your reader, creating an appealing tone that will keep your reader reading.
  • Third, they help you to avoid abstractions and to use more concrete and everyday language.
  • Fourth, they keep your sentences short.
  • Fifth, first- and second-person pronouns aren’t gender-specific, allowing you to avoid the ‘he or she’ dilemma. The pronouns to use are first-person plural (we, us, our/ours) and second-person singular (you, your/yours).”3

With practice, ideally writing in the second and first person will become addictive. Before you know it, congratulations will be in order because—thanks to personal pronouns—you will have a clearer, more engaging writing style!

 

IX Resources

 

 

Sources:

1 Plain Language Association International: http://plainlanguagenetwork.org/

2 Plain Language Action and Information Network: http://www.plainlanguage.gov/whatisPL/index.cfm

3 A Plain English Handbook—How to create clear SEC disclosure documents, page 22: https://www.sec.gov/pdf/handbook.pdf