Last revised 8/1/1999
Dr. Ed Vavra's KISS Approach to Sentence Structure
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Pablo Ruiz
y Picasso's
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# 5: Why Can't I Use "I"?
     Every semester students ask "Can I use "I" in my essay?" A few students, who have had better preparation in grammar, even ask "Can we use first person pronouns?" As in so many other areas of our teaching of grammar, we have done a poor job here. Some teachers simply forbid the use of "I" (or of all first person pronouns) in every context, at all times. Other teachers encourage its use. What are the poor students to do? Students are smarter than we normally give them credit for, and if we provided a little guidance, they could easily resolve this problem.
     The most unethical pedagogical position of all is that of not teaching students to recognize the term and concept of first person pronouns. In many fields (human services, engineering, etc.) first person is prohibited by custom. Instructors in these fields, believing that we in English have been doing our job, simply tell students not to use first person. When the students, who don't understand the term, use it, they either get their papers back to rewrite, or they lose points. (Their instructors, of course, also wonder about the professional ability of the English faculty, which probably adds to the low esteem in which English -- and Composition Faculties in particular -- are held within academia.)
      There appear to be two related reasons for invoking the prohibition, one professional, and the other pedagogical. First person is subjective, and it is often used as a justification for a statement which is otherwise not justified. The engineering supervisor does not want to read a report which simply says "I think the bridge is strong enough." That will not do, for the supervisor wants to see the detailed observations and calculations which led to that conclusion. Similarly, the Department of Public Health will not be satisfied by the Human Services worker's report that says simply "I think Mr. Jones needs home care assistance." In both cases -- and in the millions like them -- what is important is not what the reporter/writer "thinks," but rather the facts that support the writer's conclusions. Ideally, the elimination of the possibility of first person pronouns forces the writer to justify conclusions with facts, not just personal opinion. Even if the facts are not provided, the prohibition against first person gives the writing the appearance of being "objective," and such objectivity is expected in many professions.
     The pedagogical reason is more difficult to come to terms with, especially in the younger grades, because different teachers have different reasons for invoking the prohibition. Some teachers invoke it without thought -- it is what they were taught, and hence it is what they will teach. Many more thoughtful teachers, although they may even be unaware of what may be required of their students later, invoke the prohibition for similar reasons. Even at the college level, many students fill their writing with "I think," "I believe," "in my opinion," and even "in my opinion I think I believe." Usually, these same students leave out the REASONS for their so thinking, believing, etc. Many teachers therefore attempt to force the students into giving their reasons by prohibiting the use of "I." In itself, this is a good idea, but unfortunately too many teachers simply present the prohibition as a universal mandate. Any teacher who invokes the prohibition should take a few minutes to discuss when and why it is valid.
     Students are quite capable of distinguishing contexts and purposes. They understand the differences among journals, letters, casual essays, formal essays, reports, etc. If we simply teach them to recognize first person pronouns and briefly explain that different contexts have different requirements, then any teacher -- in any discipline -- can simply say "Do (or Do not) use first person in these papers." It certainly would make life a lot easier for everyone.


     Logically, it is difficult to prove a negative, i.e., to prove that good writers rarely, if ever, use phrases such as "I think," etc. Students can, however, look at examples of how recognized writers do use them. The following examples suggest how such an inquiry might be conducted.

Berlin, Isaiah, The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and Their History. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996. 

In discussing "Marxism in the Nineteenth Century," Berlin begins a paragraph with "I believe that Lenin was fundamentally right in supposing that Marx would have attacked such an attitude root and branch." (142). The first thing we need to note is that the rest of the paragraph attempts to support the belief with reasons. Next, we need to look at the context -- the paragraphs before and after the one in question. These paragraphs contain numerous "belief" statements, none of which is preceded by an "I believe" type of statement.  For example, the very next paragraph begins with the statement: "This became historically important." Why, we might ask, is this statement not also preceded by "I believe" -- "I believe that this became historically important." Doesn't the fact that none of these statements are so preceded suggest that Berlin's use of "I believe" implies a hesitancy on his part, an implication that he's not as certain about this statement as he is about all of this others? 

This hesitancy is indicated explicitly in Berlin's next use of "I," twenty-three pages later: "I should like to suggest, however tentatively, that it worked in Russia, in part at least, because men in prison, cut off from reality, believe more fiercely; their ideas are narrower, clearer and more intense, their faith is more genuine." (165)

See also: KISS Level 3.2.3 - Interjections? Or Direct Object?

First Person pronouns refer to the speaker/writer: "I," "me," "my," "we," etc.
Second Person refers to the person spoken to: "you," "your," etc.
Third Person refers to the person/thing spoken about: "he," "she," "it," "they," etc.

 The low esteem in which English, English Composition, and Education programs are held in academia is, within academia, almost proverbial. A colleague from our biology department sent me the following clip from the news wire, with the note, "something to look forward to":
In December [1998? EV], University of Nevada, Las Vegas, president Carol Harter moved the offices of most of the school's English composition teachers out of the campus's historic Houssels House and into a group of double-wide trailers in order to make room for a new Consciousness Studies Program which investigates near-death experiences and other new-age topics. That program was recently created with a large donation from a prominent real estate developer.