The Editorial “We” and the Quantum Mechanics “I”

As many of us know, Miss Manners always refers to herself as “we.” We at Eagle Eye do the same thing. This is known as the “editorial we” or, when used by kings or queens, the “royal we.” The technical word for referring to oneself using “we” is “nosism.”

What is the meaning behind this usage?

When a king or a pope referred to himself as “we,” he was making reference to the fact that he was the head or the representative of a large group of people. When a newspaper editor says “we,” she does so to indicate that she is speaking for the larger body of the newspaper. In academic papers, too, the pronoun “we” is sometimes used: “We see, then, that the hypothesis cannot be true.” In this case, the writer is being collegial with the reader.

For decades, children learning to write papers have been taught to avoid the pronoun “I.” It’s considered too self-referential, too subjective. It lacks that scientific flavor thought to give credence to a person’s work.

However, the 2009 edition of the American Psychological Association’s style guide, also known as APA 6, adjures: “For clarity, restrict your use of we to refer only to yourself and your coauthors; use I if you are the sole author of the paper” (p. 69). Many have found it hard to start using “I” in a formal or academic context, and in our experience, many colleges and universities tell their students to adhere strictly to APA 6—except in this one regard. They prefer that their students continue to refer to themselves in the third person, as if they weren’t truly involved in the study, or as if they were representing a larger group. For many students, using “we” makes them feel as if they have more credibility—and that if their findings are wrong, they’re not the only one who should be held accountable.

We like to think of this shift from “one” or “the researcher” to “I” as an interdisciplinary phenomenon, combining English and quantum mechanics. The argument in the latter is that there is no such thing as isolated or encapsulated observation; if you observe something, you must interact with it, and if you interact with it, you change it.

We like the idea that this thought has shifted from the realm of physics to the realm of doing academic research and writing papers about that research. The researcher can no longer pretend that she or he is entirely separate from the study, and the use of “I” or “we,” rather than “the researcher” or “the researchers,” reflects that awareness.

We aren’t urging people to go on and on about their personal lives or to see themselves as the center of the universe. We’re just aware that they do in fact have an effect on their environment and that there is no such thing as complete objectivity.

So if a professor gets annoyed with you for using the first person, explain that you’re moving with the times, in terms of both style guides and science. If that doesn’t work, send the professor to us and we’ll do our best to help him or her understand this shift in pronouns and why it makes sense. We needn’t turn up our noses at nosism!

Go Top