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The Use of “I” – When Should You Use It?

March 11, 2019

Expectations Pertaining to Writing an Academic Text

When students transition to college they often have lists of strict rules regarding writing in their heads. These include ideas about absolutes of both an unstated and stated nature:

  • Essays should be comprised of 5 paragraphs exactly.
  • Sentences should not begin with “because” or “and.”
  • Personal opinions should be excluded.
  • The personal pronoun “I” should never be used in an essay.

These ideas are primarily put into the student’s head by teachers and fellow students. Usually, they are intended as sound advice but become unnecessarily embedded in the mind as hard-and-fast rules. However, very strict rules can prevent writers from learning about the different styles of writing that apply to specific fields, from the humanities to the sciences, and to a variety of other assignments, from review writing to writing research papers.

So, when the purpose requires it, it is likely you will need to put some of these rules out of your mind, particularly the notion that personal experiences and first-person pronouns should always be avoided. While some professors and instructors will ask you to adhere to these ingrained rules (which is why it is worth asking directly), a great many instructors across numerous fields have their own reasons for departing from them. Avoidance of the word “I” can result in vagueness and awkwardness while its use can make a piece clearer and improve overall style. Drawing on one’s own personal experiences, where these are relevant, is a way of giving a written piece that could otherwise feel impersonal and vague an aura of authority and solidness.

Because writing assignments at college level vary hugely with regards to purpose, tone, conventions, and targeted audience, the goal is to understand the specific conventions that apply to the context you are writing in and to determine how the purpose and your intended audience has an impact on how you choose to write. The remainder of this guide focuses on strategies concerning the appropriate use of “I” and one’s personal experiences.

Using “I” Effectively

Very often, the use of “I” can enhance a written piece in these ways:

  • Make something sound assertive: Sometimes you may want to draw attention to someone (who did what), e.g., to emphasize the value of your project to a scholarly discipline or to underscore your own unique argument or perspective.
  • To make something clear: Because avoiding personal pronouns can cause vagueness and awkward sentence constructions, the use of “I” is a way of improving style.
  • To demonstrate your own position in an essay: Certain projects require writers to show how their ideas or research differs from or builds upon other people’s work, which means using “I,” “my,” “our,” or “we.” Additionally, the use of “I” can help you claim authority regarding a topic.

Determining If the Use of “I” Will Improve Your Writing Style

The example below shows how the use of the first person adds assertiveness and clarity to a piece of writing:

Original text: In observing the styles of communication used by first-year female students in Carolina, I noted how frequently non-verbal prompts were used.

Improved example: In observing the styles of communication used by first-year female students in Carolina, it was clear that non-verbal prompts are frequently used.

The use of the first person in this example’s original text severely limits the experience to the writer’s individual and subjective view even though their aim is to describe a situation that is independent or objective from that view. Not using the first person in this case gives the better impression of having observed a reproducible situation and it also makes the statement clearer and stronger.

The Use of “I” as Determined By the Conventions of an Academic Discipline

In Which Disciplines is “I” Permissible?

Rules about this have been subject to some change and it is therefore advisable to seek clarification from your tutor or instructor in the event you are not sure if you should use “I.” However, the following are a few general pointers.

The Sciences: Previously, writers in the field of science did not use “I” since scientists tended to think that its use interfered with the impersonality and objectivity they sought to achieve. However, it would seem that, in certain cases, conventions are changing – for example, when a writer is explaining a project or trying to position their project accurately within the context of existing work. Ask your instructor if the use of “I” is acceptable in their class.

Social Sciences: Similar to other science writers, some writers in this field prefer not to use the first person. However, the use of “I” is being increasingly accepted, particularly to describe a perspective or project.

The Humanities: Check with an instructor if the use of “I” is permissible. Usually, the reasons for writing on the humanities is for the writer to analyze ideas, language, or an artwork from their own perspective. Assertiveness is something that humanities writers’ seem to value as is emphasizing who did what. Therefore, the use of “I” is sometimes appropriate – though not on every occasion. Writers sometimes use “I” in a less-than-effective manner by putting “I feel,” “I believe,” or “I think” before an assertion as though these words have the power to take the place of a real argument or defense. Although readers are usually interested in the writer’s perspective on their subject, they do look for you to properly argue, illustrate, and support any assertions you make. Personal opinions or beliefs are usually insufficient by themselves; evidence is needed to convince readers.

Other written works: The use of “I” and sometimes even “you” (second person) is often encouraged in speech writing since phrases like these can help the speaker connect with their audience and they can add a feeling of sincerity i.e. by showing the speaker cares about their subject. However, avoid using “I” in your resume; for example, say “worked as a student counselor” in the “Experience” section.

A Word About “You” (the Second Person)

If you want your writing (i.e. a speech, letter, or a piece offering useful advice) to sound friendly and conversational, the use of “you” can be ideal. However, the second person can tend to sound too casual and conversational in an academic text e.g. “Reading ‘The Wasteland,’ leaves you feeling empty.” This sounds too conversation. It would be better to say “Reading ‘The Wasteland’ leaves an empty feeling.” The writers of academic pieces usually try to avoid “you” in favor of alternatives like “the audience,” “the people,” or “one.”

Using Personal Experiences in an Academic Text

Usually it is purpose and context that determines whether the writer’s personal experiences are appropriate in an academic text. Where a paper’s purpose involves analyzing some objective theory or principle, analyzing data for a science paper or, for example, minimizing the presence of the writer in an anthropology paper, it is likely that personal experiences would take away from the purpose. However, there are times when a writer may need to emphasize their position with regards to their research project or subject. Additionally, it is appropriate to draw on personal experiences when responding or reacting to an artwork, in order to provide examples of how a theory or idea reflects real life, or as evidence to demonstrate an abstract idea or principle. The effective use of personal experiences generally means confining these to an argument rather than allowing them to become the centerpiece of a paper or develop into an end in themselves.

Also, it is often best to be brief when relating hypothetical or true stories, even if they are beneficial to an argument in need of added vitality or solid illustrations.

The following examples show how to use personal experiences to good effect in an academic text:

Use of anecdote: Sometimes short examples of an experience can serve to illustrate an idea or point you are trying to evaluate or argue. For example, writers frequently use hypothetical or real-life situations in a philosophical argument as a way of illustrating abstract principles and ideas.

Referring to one’s own life experiences can be used to explain one’s interest in something or to help establish subject matter authority.

Certain assignments, e.g., essays of application, explicitly require the writer to discuss personal experiences.

Below are a few suggestions on using personal experience when writing on specific subjects:

Writing on Philosophy: The purpose of this type of writing is usually to evaluate or rebuild an already-constructed argument  or to build one’s own. To do this in an effective manner sometimes means providing a hypothetical illustration or example. Here, you may find it helpful to recount or invent a personal experience to demonstrate an idea or point. Personal experiences can be of great use in a philosophy paper provided you can show readers how your chosen experience and argument relate to each other. 

Writing for Women’s (Gender) Studies: Classes that cover women’s studies are often feminist in their perspective, usually focused on gender-based roles as these relate to the experiences of individuals. Therefore, it is often possible to draw on personal experiences when completing argumentative and analytical assignments for these classes. Students in this field may also be required to maintain journals – writing that requires theoretical concepts are applied to one’s own experiences.

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