A recent writing assignment in my college composition class involved telling about a change experienced or witnessed by each writer. One student told about an interesting situation (too personal to be detailed here), but her language was convoluted and highly formal. I almost felt like reading it required wearing a tux.
I told her, “I can’t find you in here.” She said, “Well, maybe it’s because I took out all the Is.”
“Didn’t you have to flip a lot of these sentences to get the Is and mes out of here?” I asked.
“Yeah, but I didn’t know we could use I in this.”
“Can we use I in this?” is a question I’ve heard many times as students begin to frame a new piece of writing, even writing that is obviously personal in nature, such as a reflection on a book or passage, or a college application essay. The question always baffles me.
Why would it not be OK to use first person pronouns? How can anyone write about his thoughts or experiences while avoiding first person pronouns? Why would anyone want to read something personal by a writer who can’t refer to herself?
When I write, I’m using my words and my ideas. I claim them. So referring to myself, either in passing or at length, requires using some form of I or me, unless I want to resort to the kinds of linguistic contortions and hyper-formality contrived by my well-intentioned student.
When I tell students it’s fine to use I, they don’t trust my permission. They’ve heard too many times that I should not be used in writing. Or at least they think that’s what they’ve heard.
To help me understand how this issue looks from their perspective, I asked my students, “What is your understanding of the rules about using first person pronouns such as I and me?” Here are some responses from high school seniors and college freshmen:
“You can’t have Is in papers that are for classes.”
“One of my teachers said that other people can’t relate to it if you use I.”
“Using ‘I think’ takes away from the power of what I’m saying. If I state my opinions as facts, they are more powerful.”
“It’s not your own thoughts anymore when you have to reword it to avoid I.”
It is true that some teachers forbid the use of first person pronouns. Maybe it’s because many schools and teachers are emphasizing research-based writing and seem to be biased against narrative or other personal types of writing. That narrow approach can strangle the voices of young writers.
I’m sure that most teachers have explained the first person pronoun dilemma correctly: Using first person pronouns is fine in some situations, and using first person pronouns is not fine in other situations. But many students process that as “Too complicated. I can’t risk it; therefore, I will never use first person pronouns.” The result is that many high school and college writers are walking around with the idea that using I in their writing is wrong.
The primary consideration, of course, should be the purpose of the writing. If the purpose of the writing is to be personable, we’re going to have to use some Is. If the purpose of the writing is to be completely objective, then we won’t use first person pronouns. (If the writing is persuasive in nature, I still think it’s OK to use first person pronouns. An opinion’s merit isn’t weakened by presenting it as an opinion.)
If we want our writing to be formal, even when talking about ourselves, we should probably use the third person one instead of first person pronouns. Writing in the 10th Century, Japanese ur-essayist Sei Shonagon said, “I have been very shocked to hear important people use the word ‘I’ while conversing in Their Majesties’ presence. Such a breach of etiquette is really distressing, and I fail to see why people cannot avoid it.” Interestingly, in this passage Shonagon uses I, apparently opting for informality and granting something less than magisterial status to her readers.
Let’s look at this from a perspective larger than pronouns. The most important ability we can help develop in young writers is decision-making. A writer takes stock of her situation by considering her purpose, audience, and goals. She then makes decisions about how to best capitalize on the contours of that rhetorical situation. When it comes to writing, good decision-makers will follow the right rules for the right reasons. Otherwise, writers will become stuck in their development at the point where their decision-making is trumped by rule-following.
We should guide student writers to become better decision-makers and not concern ourselves too much with guiding them to be rule-followers.
Thanks for sharing your advice about how you help student writers navigate this issue.