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
The dreaded “I” word. How can one letter be so malignant when it comes to academic writing?
It’s likely that many of your teachers and professors have drilled it into your head that using first-person writing in your essays will immediately result in another unrelenting letter of the alphabet: “F.”
As a curious student, you may be thinking that surely there must be some instances where using first-person writing is okay.
If that’s you, you’re asking all the right questions. This post will cover when it’s okay to use first-person writing in your essays and when it’s better to stick with third-person.
What Exactly Is First-Person Writing?
First-person writing involves using singular first-person pronouns such as I, me, my, mine, etc. You could also use plural first-person pronouns such as we, our, us, ours, etc.
For instance, this adorable kitten is talking primarily in first-person perspective (the “you” and “your” there is second-person perspective, which could be another blog topic entirely).
First-person writing can get really boring really fast. For example, I’ll write a short narrative about my day so far.
I opened my emails.
I ate breakfast.
The neighbor’s dog annoyed me.
I pet my cats and later pushed them off the couch.
I thought about eating popcorn for breakfast…but didn’t.
My roommate and I could not decide whether or not to hang the art in our apartment.
While I might think I am fascinating, you have probably stopped reading the list by now. You’re done hearing about me, me, me, right?
Well, think of that as part of the reason your teachers might boycott first-person pronouns. If your professor wants you to write an essay about President Obama, he or she probably doesn’t want to hear about what you (or the President for that matter) ate for breakfast.
When Is First-person Writing Ineffective or Unwarranted?
Let’s face it. Everyone likes to write about themselves. The problem with first-person perspective in academic writing is that it can sound
When your instructor wants you to write a 15-page research paper about the problems in the Middle East, exclusively talking about your opinions on the matter is going to be an issue.
Instead, you should look for unbiased sources, search through the material, and use that in your research paper to make it more credible. Yes, that might sound like a lot more work, but it will pay off when you get your grade.
Sometimes, it can be difficult to take out first-person writing altogether. If you have the impulse to write in first-person perspective a lot, that’s okay! It’s still a great way to get your thoughts out on paper.
For example, pretend that this is one of my main points for a poem analysis I am writing:
Using words such as “melancholy” and “frustration,” the poem made me feel sad.
In this case, the first-person “me” would not be appropriate because the focus needs to be on the poem itself and not on what I think about it. But, because I wrote this, I now understand what the poem is doing.
I can rewrite this idea in my second draft using third-person perspective:
Using words such as “melancholy” and “frustration,” the poem employs a mournful tone to demonstrate the difficulty that comes with the loss of a loved one.
Most times, you’re the only one who will see your first draft, so go ahead and throw first-person perspective in if it helps you get your thoughts on paper. Make sure, however, that you go through and take it out in your revision.
Make or Break Your Academic Career: When Is First-person Writing Okay?
Okay, I was being dramatic with that header. Really, if you mess up on choosing whether to use first-person writing or not, you don’t have to forever hang your head in shame. You might get a slap on the wrist (in the form of some red marks on your paper), but it’s not the end of the world.
However, it never hurts to educate yourself on the dos and don’ts of first-person writing.
While essays about you require first-person, other types of essays (e.g., research papers) usually should not include first-person perspective.
Here are some examples of types of essays that, by their nature, require first-person writing:
- Personal narrative essays
- Memoir/reflective essays
- Personal statements (e.g., college application essays)
Try writing an essay about the first time you went to the dentist (narrative essay) without using first-person writing. It would probably sound something like this:
One time, someone’s mom took a person to the dentist, and that person did not like the dentist because the person had cavities.
Writing using “I” just makes more sense for the context:
One time, my mom took me to the dentist, and I did not like the dentist because I had cavities.
Much better, right? There, you already have ammo to use against your teacher when he or she says “no” to first-person writing.
If you would like to look at more examples of essays that require first-person writing, check out these sample personal narrative essays!
Getting Down and Dirty with First-Person Writing
Now we get to the more complicated bit: knowing when to use first-person writing in other types of academic papers.
As a failsafe, I would suggest that you stay away from first-person writing in most instances. As long as you are not writing personal essays, it would be hard to go wrong with leaving yourself out of it.
There are cases where first-person writing is appropriate in other types of academic writing, but I would highly suggest discussing it with your professor first. Here are a couple of those cases:
Case #1 – Replacing Passive Voice with First-person Writing
Passive voice is another no-no that professors and teachers pound into students’ heads, and one way to fix it is to use first-person perspective. Here is a sentence that is in passive voice:
The flask was used to combine the liquids so the experiment could be observed.
While some style guides say to limit passive voice, others strictly say not to use it at all. For instance, the above sentence would not be acceptable in APA Style. Here is one way to fix the sentence:
The researcher used the flask to combine the liquids and observe the experiment.
However, if you are the researcher, it would be appropriate to use “I” in your APA format lab write-up.
I used the flask to combine the liquids and observe the experiment.
“We” would also be appropriate an appropriate pronoun if there were more than one researcher and you were one of them.
We used the flask to combine the liquids and observe the experiment.
Case #2 – Personal Anecdotes
In some essays, adding a personal experience or anecdote can make your essay more successful. For instance, talking about an experience you had when you went to a public forum might be pertinent in a persuasive essay about why more people need to attend public forums.
That being said, don’t go crazy with the first-person writing like this guy.
In these types of essays, limit your use of first-person writing to maybe one short paragraph, and make sure that the writing is relevant to your topic. If you are writing an essay about how important doctors are, for example, you might not want to talk about how your dog has superpowers.
Just a hunch.
The Verdict on First-person Writing: Sometimes
Like many hard-and-fast rules, there are instances when using first-person pronouns (or even running red lights) is okay.
Remember that personal essays (essays about you) need first-person writing. Research papers, literary analyses, and other academic papers, on the other hand, can include first-person writing on a situational basis as long as it is relevant and does not occur all the way through the essay.
If you need help taking the first-person pronouns out of your essay, you can always get help from our talented Kibin editors.
*Cover image by Frederik Delaere
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