Many times, high school students are told not to use first person (“I,” “we,” “my,” “us,” and so forth) in their essays. As a college student, you should realize that this is a rule that can and should be broken—at the right time, of course.
By now, you’ve probably written a personal essay, memoir, or narrative that used first person. After all, how could you write a personal essay about yourself, for instance, without using the dreaded “I” word?
However, academic essays differ from personal essays; they are typically researched and use a formal tone. Because of these differences, when students write an academic essay, they quickly shy away from first person because of what they have been told in high school or because they believe that first person feels too informal for an intellectual, researched text. Yet while first person can definitely be overused in academic essays (which is likely why your teachers tell you not to use it), there are moments in a paper when it is not only appropriate, but it is actually effective and/or persuasive to use first person. The following are a few instances in which it is appropriate to use first person in an academic essay:
- Including a personal anecdote: You have more than likely been told that you need a strong “hook” to draw your readers in during an introduction. Sometimes, the best hook is a personal anecdote, or a short amusing story about yourself. In this situation, it would seem unnatural not to use first-person pronouns such as “I” and “myself.” Your readers will appreciate the personal touch and will want to keep reading! (For more information about incorporating personal anecdotes into your writing, see "Employing Narrative in an Essay.")
- Establishing your credibility (ethos): Ethos is a term stemming back to Ancient Greece that essentially means “character” in the sense of trustworthiness or credibility. A writer can establish her ethos by convincing the reader that she is trustworthy source. Oftentimes, the best way to do that is to get personal—tell the reader a little bit about yourself. (For more information about ethos, see "Ethos.")
For instance, let’s say you are writing an essay arguing that dance is a sport. Using the occasional personal pronoun to let your audience know that you, in fact, are a classically trained dancer—and have the muscles and scars to prove it—goes a long way in establishing your credibility and proving your argument. And this use of first person will not distract or annoy your readers because it is purposeful.
- Clarifying passive constructions: Often, when writers try to avoid using first person in essays, they end up creating confusing, passive sentences.
For instance, let’s say I am writing an essay about different word processing technologies, and I want to make the point that I am using Microsoft Word to write this essay. If I tried to avoid first-person pronouns, my sentence might read: “Right now, this essay is being written in Microsoft Word.” While this sentence is not wrong, it is what we call passive—the subject of the sentence is being acted upon because there is no one performing the action. To most people, this sentence sounds better: “Right now, I am writing this essay in Microsoft Word.” Do you see the difference? In this case, using first person makes your writing clearer.
- Stating your position in relation to others: Sometimes, especially in an argumentative essay, it is necessary to state your opinion on the topic. Readers want to know where you stand, and it is sometimes helpful to assert yourself by putting your own opinions into the essay. You can imagine the passive sentences (see above) that might occur if you try to state your argument without using the word “I.” The key here is to use first person sparingly. Use personal pronouns enough to get your point across clearly without inundating your readers with this language.
Now, the above list is certainly not exhaustive. The best thing to do is to use your good judgment, and you can always check with your instructor if you are unsure of his or her perspective on the issue. Ultimately, if you feel that using first person has a purpose or will have a strategic effect on your audience, then it is probably fine to use first-person pronouns. Just be sure not to overuse this language, at the risk of sounding narcissistic, self-centered, or unaware of others’ opinions on a topic.
The First Person
Use the First Person
Early in our school lives, we are encouraged to express our own thoughts and opinions. This sometimes leads to a writing style that is very focussed on the first person, with sentences which begin ‘I believe’, ‘I think’, ‘In my opinion’, etc.
There are differing opinions about whether or not first-person pronouns should be used in academic writing. Whatever your position, though, overuse of ‘I’ or ‘my’ is not a good idea in an essay, as it can draw focus away from the subject under discussion.
When Not to Use the First Person
When writing, there is no need to state that you think something. Asserting it as fact implies that you believe it. For example, take these sentences:
- Henderson’s argument is invalid because…
- I believe Henderson’s argument is invalid because…
These both mean the same thing. Saying ‘I believe’ is unnecessary, as it is clear that you are expressing an opinion without having to signal it explicitly!
The first sentence is also more persuasive, as the second seems like mere opinion. Your argument is not strengthened by writing ‘I think that…’, but rather by providing relevant supporting evidence.
When to Use the First Person
Sometimes the first person is useful for highlighting how your opinion differs from a thinker you are discussing. For example, in summing up, you might say ‘whilst Henderson has stated X, I believe the opposite’.
Unless your university forbids using ‘I’ in essays, you can also use the first person when describing your methods to avoid awkward sentences. For instance, the following sentence is a bit confusing:
It was concluded that the new technique can reduce remission rates.
The question, then, is who made the conclusion? To ensure clarity, the sentence could be written as:
We conclude that the new technique can reduce remission rates.
This eliminates the ambiguity over who is drawing the conclusion, as well as being more impactful by using the active rather than passive voice.
The crucial thing to consider when using the first person in your work is whether it detracts from the focus of your argument. Using ‘I’ or ‘we’ when describing your methodology is generally fine, since it clarifies the role you play in the research process.
But phrases like ‘In my opinion…’ do not add to the clarity of your writing. Instead, they make it seem like your research is more about you than whatever you’re investigating!
Finally, if in any doubt, it is always best to check with your supervisor or style guide before setting to work. Good luck!