Use of the first person--history

Subject: Use of the first person--history
From: Emily Cotlier <Cotlier -at- JBLSMTP -dot- PHL -dot- LRPUB -dot- COM>
Date: Mon, 2 Feb 1998 11:56:57 -0500

I've been interested to see this thread, esp. other people's comments.
I'm a graduate student in technical/science communication, and I recently
completed a paper on the history of professional journal writing styles,
as an interesting subset of academic/technical writing standards. I spent
a lot of time in historical libraries handling centuries-old scientific journals
with white cotton gloves, seeing how the original texts changed over
time, and rescuing early science writing guides from dusty back shelves.

Authors used the personal "I" from 1600 through 1910 in many
technical and scientific journal articles. The writing was further
ornamented with statements about the beauty, correctness, value,
wonder, tragedy, and moral righteousness of the topic and related
references. Authors also did not hesitate to engage in blatant
self-promotion, trashing rivals and other journals! While some of this
makes for very entertaining reading, there is definitely a difference
between "the patient died" and three paragraphs about the patient's last
painful breaths and prayers. At certain historical moments, writers would
try to engage in a "pure" rhetoric of science, or impose such a rhetoric
on a journal, but these attempts were short-lived.

After 1910, two things happened to prune away the excesses and
personality in academic tech/sci writing once and for all. There were
significant fluctuations in the amount of journals being published between
1910 and 1930. Also, the professional societies adopted a modern ethic
of communication and original research; editors became much stricter
about what they would and would not accept, and how they wanted it. If
the writing of 1900 was like an overstuffed, carved Victorian loveseat,
the writing of 1930 was supposed to be like a sleek, functional Bahaus
chair. By the beginning of World War II, most journal writing and formats
were clinical and modern.

Technical and scientific journal writing in general has remained at the
"modern" stage, because, to serve its purpose better, all it can do is
become more and more utilitarian, whether for the user or the academic
audience. The absence of personal references has been seen as part of
the functionality and perceived "academic purity" of journal writing.
There's a lot more to be said about audiences and the changing role of
academic texts and journals over time, but I think that's enough for now!

Emily Cotlier

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