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
Style, Genre & Writing
This resource provides a list of key concepts, words, and phrases that multi-lingual writers may find useful if they are new to writing in the North American educational context. It covers concepts and and key words pertaining to the stages in the writing process, style, citation and reference, and other common expressions in academic writing
Last Edited: 2017-08-29 12:12:41
What do you mean by tone in writing? In writing, tone can refer to: a writer’s style, character, or attitudes. As a reader, you will get certain feelings from a writer’s attitude toward certain topics. For example, if a writer expresses his or her passion in some topics, then the tone of the writing will very excited. A writer’s tone can be different from genre to genre, and from topic to topic. A Writer’s tone can be formal, informal, subjective, objective, critical, etc.
Being formal or “informal” is a matter of tone. Having a formal tone is often required in academic writing. When your professors or instructors say you should make your writing sound more formal, it means that you should not use some words that are used in a casual written or spoken forms of language.
For example, the language you use in a casual speech in a small get-together or a party is different from the language you use in your academic writing. It means that you should differentiate your use of language for a casual party and for academic writing.
From your own angle
What does it mean to write from your own angle? If your professors or instructors require you to write something from your own angle, it means that they want to see your own perspectives and your own ways of viewing the world in your writing. It means that you should think about certain topics from your own ways of looking at those topics, instead of reproducing arguments made by others.
First person point-of-view
Firstperson point-of-view refers to using the first-person pronouns I or We. If you write your paper with your co-authors, you might use we in the paper when you are refering to actions or beliefs that you and your co-authors have taken. In the first person point-of-view, you usually write your paper from your own experience or perspective. The use of first person point-of-view is usually avoided in academic writing. But, sometimes you are allowed to use it; for example, when you explain your own data or primary resources.
“Second person point-of-view”
Second person point-of-view means that you use the second-person pronounyou in your writing. You can sound informal to your audience, so it is often avoided in academic writing. But, if you are writing a recipe for some food, or instructions, or in casual or creative writing, you may use second person point-of-view.
Third person point-of-view
Third person point-of-view refers to the use of third-person pronouns: he, she, they, and it. The third person point-of-view has a wide range of uses in both creative and academic contexts.
Context refers to the surroundings of certain words, phrases, sentences, or paragraphs. The meanings of words, phrases, sentences may change based on a given context. For example, in “give a hand”, “hand” would be interpreted as “help” or “assistance”, rather than as the thing at the end of your arm that has four fingers and a thumb.
Conventions refer certain traditions or rules of a context or genre. In other words, conventions are generally agreed on practices or rules that writers should pay attention to when they compose a text. For example, in academic writing, you should write in a formal style while using certain styles of citation to deliver your arguments to your audience.
If your assignment tells you to write a critical review or critical analysis about a specific topic, it means that you will carefully examine and analyze whatever you are reviewing. You need to lay out and explain your analysis, providing both strengths and weaknesses of it. In this type of writing, it is important to think about your own critical analysis of others' opinions, rather than merely summarizing them.
If your assignment tells you to write an argumentative paper, you will choose your stance on certain topics, and create a statement that clearly reflects your position or opinion on the topic. You will elaborate on your arguments, by explaining further, providing examples, and referencing relevant literature. In an argumentative paper, it is important to have a good understanding of a topic, and to develop your opinion.
If your assignment tells you to write an expository paper, you will explain and illustrate something in a way that your readers can clearly understand what you are saying in your texts. In an expository paper, you will not be expected to write your own opinions, or positions on certain topics. Instead, you will mostly explain, review, and describe certain concepts or facts.