Using First-Person Pronouns

Inexperienced writers often use I or me excessively. Lazy teachers have, therefore, concocted a “rule” against ever using first-person pronouns. This fraudulent rule saves teachers the trouble of having to educate their students on the proper use of the first person.

Shame on all such teachers.

On the Proper Use of the First Person

You won’t often need first-person pronouns for two reasons. First, your readers will assume that everything you write expresses your own thoughts and opinions. So in almost every case, constructions like I believe, I think, in my opinion, and so on are simply redundant. Second, academic writing should focus on its topic, not on the author. Academic writers place themselves discretely in the background.

You can use the first person whenever it’s appropriate. I can think of two common situations when first-person is completely appropriate.

First, if you’re writing about a personal experience (an autobiographical essay or a personal anecdote, for instance), then the first person is all but mandatory. Writing about yourself in the third person sounds silly, stilted, and slightly creepy.

Second, if a sentence is shorter, clearer, or more elegant with a first-person pronoun than without it, then use the first-person pronoun. Never tangle your syntax into knots just to avoid saying “I.”

First-Rate Writers Use First-Person Pronouns

“It was years before I realized that what the various negative commentators accused me of believing or seeming to believe was exactly what I did and do believe.”
— Stephen Booth, Precious Nonsense (20)

“To me, however, the outstanding feature of the reviews is that nearly all of them overlooked the most glaring weakness of Freud, Biologist of the Mind.”
— Frederick Crews, Skeptical Engagements (96)

“Probably only examples can suggest what I mean.”
— John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist (66)

“My phone number has always been a listed one, and I’ve only regretted that once.”
— John Varley, The John Varley Reader (vii)

“I emphasize that resourceful reading and question-asking will lead readers to discoveries they are eager to share.”
— Helen Vendler, Poems, Poets, Poetry (vii)


Page Last Updated: 30 August 2016