As a tutor in the Writing Center, I see students struggle on a daily basis with preconceived notions about writing. Of the many inherited myths about college writing, the perceived prohibition against using the personal pronoun “I” leads to the most jumbled sentences. What’s more, the steadfast resistance to using the personal pronoun reflects deeper issues about how writers relate to their work, and their place in the academic community.
Maybe your high school English teacher told you that the personal pronoun “I” has no place in formal writing or never to begin a sentence with “and” or “but.” These proscriptions do more harm than good when internalized completely. Writing from a perspective of “I” has value beyond your personal essay from Writing 111.
When writers are overly sensitive to avoiding the personal pronoun, they end up with awkwardly constructed sentences. Passive voice often serves as a clear indicator that this resistance has taken root. Take the phrase “it is evident.” To whom is it evident? And if it is so evident, why does it need to be said? The sentences I encounter in the Writing Center are often in need of a clear subject. Who is doing what, and to whom?
There are reasons why writers might avoid the personal pronoun in formal writing. Research papers and argumentative essays should prove a point, a definitive thesis. Including phrases like “I think” or “I feel” may seem weaker than “it is evident that” or “it is therefore shown.” Writing in terms of “I feel” may come across as overly emotional. In a research paper, after all, your evidence is supposed to do the work for you. It is not your feelings or inclinations which will demonstrate your thesis.
Still, writers who — consciously or not — avoid the personal pronoun at all costs produce sentences eerily distant from authentic human expression. Instead of “it is argued that,” why not just get on with it and state your argument? If it is a good enough claim, your reader will sense that you are setting out to prove something interesting, controversial or counterintuitive.
Painful instances of passive voice frequently appear in introductions and conclusions. “Following analysis, implications are discussed.” Implications cannot discuss themselves. Who’s discussing the implications? Presumably, the author of the paper. Why, then, the reluctance to acknowledge the implied subject?
A chief reason writers avoid the personal pronoun, I think, is to distance themselves from their work. Psychologically, it’s tough to put yourself on the line with a phrase like “I believe.” When you write that, suddenly you’ve implicated yourself directly. Your work can no longer revolve solely around distant studies and citations. Consider the distance, with regards to personal involvement and voice, between “it is contended” and “I contend.” There is nothing more impersonal than “it is argued.”
That’s why writing from a place of “I” should be an important part of academic writing. It’s naive to think that any essay can come from an objective source, without any bias. The author’s presence and involvement should be cherished, not dismissed. Writing from a place of “I” is the beginning of acknowledging that you have a unique voice to contribute to a conversation.
I think so, at least.