Daniel D. Beck

Should you use the first-person plural in your documentation?

If you’re writing technical documentation, then you might be tempted to use the first-person plural: “we”, “us”, and “ours”. But unlike the second person (“you”), using “we” is not as clearly a common or acceptable practice.

Like the second person, “we” feels like it could be more conversational than third-person alternatives. “We open the file” is closer than the distance created by “the reader opens the file”. But “we” might be too close, forcing a relationship between the author and reader that may not exist.

Acceptability aside, the first-person plural can also be a source of confusion for you, as a writer. Does “we” refer to:

If you’re considering using the first-person plural, then there are two questions to answer: is it acceptable and, if so, in which sense does it make sense?

Ultimately, the acceptability question is up to you, but since many writers and editors have dealt with this problem before you, it can’t hurt to lean on their expertise—and borrow a bit of their authority—when choosing your project’s style. What do they say?

Style guides rarely forbid using the first-person point of view. Apple’s style guide is categorical: “Don’t use first person; rewrite in terms of the reader or the product.”

More frequently, style guides recommend caution when using the first-person plural for varying reasons:

Occasionally, style guides encourage the use of the first-person plural. Style guides from the United States government, Salesforce, DigitalOcean, and Mailchimp all recommend that “we” refers to the institutional author of the document (the company or government agency).

Avoid “we”, or use it in narrow circumstances

Taken together, popular style guides provide less clarity on the use of the first-person plural than they do for the second person. But they do suggest two major options:

If you can avoid it, don’t use the first-person plural. If “we” can be replaced by “you” without any change of meaning or loss of clarity, do that instead.

If you can’t avoid the first-person plural (or choose to use it anyway), then make its meaning unambiguous:

For the first-person plural, there’s no consensus style, which might make for a more nuanced or even contentious decision. But accepting some constraints, by ruling out the first-person plural or limiting who it can refer to, can simplify the decision and avoid its biggest hazards.