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
Last week I produced a video of me writing an IELTS essay live and I got lots of great feedback, but also some negative emails too. I love to receive emails whether positive or negative, because it lets me know exactly what you guys think and also what I can do to help you even more.
The strange thing was nearly all of the negativity was about one thing- personal pronouns.To summarise, lots of you thought that I used them too much and that this was not acceptable in a Task 2 essay. I was always of the opinion that it was fine to use personal pronouns, but this made me doubt myself, so I did some research.
I first chatted to some ex-examiners and then I consulted some of the IELTS blogs I respect, like DC IELTS and IELTS Ryan. Below, is what everyone, including myself, thought about the issue.
What are personal pronouns?
Personal pronouns are words like ‘I’, ‘we’, ‘you’ and ‘they’. Some people think that they should never be used in IELTS essays because they will make the essay sound too informal and not academic enough.
I believe that…. (informal)
This essay believes that…. (formal/academic)
If you eat too much junk food you will get fat. (informal)
If a person eats too much junk food that person will get fat. (formal/academic)
What does the marking criteria say?
If you are ever in doubt about anything to do with IELTS Writing always check what the official marking criteria says first.
What does it say about personal pronouns? Nothing. What does it say about being informal or formal for Task 2? Nothing.
What do the questions say?
If you look at some of the official questions from Cambridge Examination Papers they would also seem to encourage you to use personal pronouns.
They use language like:
‘Discuss both these views and give your own opinion.’
‘Give reasons for your answer and include any relevant examples from your own knowledge or experience.’
‘To what extent do you agree or disagree.’
It would be very difficult to answer the question above without using personal pronouns and I don’t think that Cambridge are trying to play tricks on us.
What do examiners say?
The ex-examiners I have spoken to all say the same thing. It is fine to use them, but don’t overuse them.
When can we actually use them?
It is absolutely fine to use personal pronouns when giving opinions and when giving examples. Just don’t use them throughout the whole essay i.e. in every sentence.
Also, if you don’t want to use them and prefer to use very academic language, then that is fine too.
In the past I have advised students to use academic ways to give examples and opinions, but this is only because I was afraid that they would overuse personal pronouns throughout the whole essay.
It should also be noted that you have many things to be worrying about when writing your essay, so adding in the worry of counting how many personal pronouns you are using should not be encouraged. Relax.
It is acceptable to use them when giving your opinion or examples if you like, but don’t overuse them in the rest of the essay. However, it is not in the marking scheme, so do not make it a major concern. The things that are specifically listed in the marking criteria are the things your need to focus on.
2 + 2 =
Some of the emails I got were quite irate and some were from IELTS teachers who said that I was misleading students by including personal pronouns in my essay.
What I would say to that is IELTS Writing is not mathematics. If I had said that 2 + 2 = 5, then I could understand their anger, but writing is a fluid discipline and there are many different answers and methods that can result in a high score.
I also do not publish anything unless it has been approved by at least one of many ex-examiners I know.
I hope you found this useful and it cleared up some of the issues. Please let me know what you think by commenting below or join the conversation on Facebook.