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First Person Academic Essay Topic

Behind the Stylewriting tips

Using “I” in Academic Writing

By Michael Kandel

Traditionally, some fields have frowned on the use of the first-person singular in an academic essay and others have encouraged that use, and both the frowning and the encouraging persist today—and there are good reasons for both positions (see “Should I”).

I recommend that you not look on the question of using “I” in an academic paper as a matter of a rule to follow, as part of a political agenda (see Webb), or even as the need to create a strategy to avoid falling into Scylla-or-Charybdis error. Let the first-person singular be, instead, a tool that you take out when you think it’s needed and that you leave in the toolbox when you think it’s not.

Examples of When “I” May Be Needed

  • You are narrating how you made a discovery, and the process of your discovering is important or at the very least entertaining.
  • You are describing how you teach something and how your students have responded or respond.
  • You disagree with another scholar and want to stress that you are not waving the banner of absolute truth.
  • You need “I” for rhetorical effect, to be clear, simple, or direct.

Examples of When “I” Should Be Given a Rest

  • It’s off-putting to readers, generally, when “I” appears too often. You may not feel one bit modest, but remember the advice of Benjamin Franklin, still excellent, on the wisdom of preserving the semblance of modesty when your purpose is to convince others.
  • You are the author of your paper, so if an opinion is expressed in it, it is usually clear that this opinion is yours. You don’t have to add a phrase like, “I believe” or “it seems to me.”

Works Cited

Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Project Gutenberg, 28 Dec. 2006, www.gutenberg.org/files/20203/20203-h/20203-h.htm#I.

“Should I Use “I”?” The Writing Center at UNC—Chapel Hill, writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/should-i-use-i/.

Webb, Christine. “The Use of the First Person in Academic Writing: Objectivity, Language, and Gatekeeping.” ResearchGate, July 1992, doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2648.1992.tb01974.x.

Michael Kandel has been editing at the MLA for twenty-one years. He also translated several Polish writers, among them Stanisław Lem, Andrzej Stasiuk, Marek Huberath, and Paweł Huelle, and edited, for Harcourt Brace, several American writers, among them Jonathan Lethem, Ursula K. Le Guin, James Morrow, and Patricia Anthony.

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!

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