During school, many of us were told to never use “I” in an essay. And so we went on to college, trying our best to write papers without using any first-person pronouns. But where does this rule come from? And is it really wrong to use “I” in an essay? Read on to find out!
When Not to Use “I” in Academic Writing
It is true that using too many first-person pronouns in a college paper will look bad. This is because it looks like you’re expressing an opinion rather than discussing facts. For instance:
I think the Watergate scandal had a big effect on American politics.
The “I think” here is unnecessary. Watergate was undeniably a major incident in American politics, so it is not simply an opinion. You could even cite sources where its impact is discussed.
Similarly, overuse of first-person pronouns can detract from the focus of your writing. Take the following example from a scientific paper:
I observed the sample through a microscope, and I noticed an unusual microbe.
Here, the focus is on the person conducting the study instead of the study itself. But scientific writing is supposed to be objective. It would therefore be better to say:
The sample was observed through a microscope. This revealed an unusual microbe.
By using the passive voice here, we make sure the focus is on the experiment, not the experimenter.
In both of these cases, then, it would be better to avoid use of the first person.
Using First-Person Pronouns Correctly
However, there are cases when it is correct to use first-person pronouns in an essay. These include:
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To emphasize or clarify your own role in a study
To position yourself in relation to other thinkers
For example, we could write the following without using the first person:
In studying queue formation in Starbucks, the issue of how social behavior is affected by caffeine withdrawal was explored.
However, this gives us no indication of who is conducting the study and the use of passive voice leads to an awkward sentence. We might therefore want to use first-person pronouns to ensure clarity:
In studying queue formation in Starbucks, we explored how social behavior is affected by caffeine withdrawal.
Another alternative would be using “the researcher” or “the author” to refer to ourselves in the third person. But this can also be problematic. For instance:
While Ving and Rhames (2001) argued that tea drinkers are more violent, the researchers have not found evidence to back up this claim.
The identity of “the researchers” here could be ambiguous. Does it refer to Ving and Rhames? Another study by someone else? Or is it the authors of this paper? It would therefore be better to say:
While Ving and Rhames (2001) argued that tea drinkers are more violent, we have not found evidence to back up this claim.
With this simple change, we can immediately what this sentence is saying. In general, then:
DO NOT use the first person if it makes your work sound overly subjective or draws focus from what you are meant to be discussing
But DO use the first person if it helps to ensure clarity and concision in your writing