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I recently wrote an essay for a history class and the teaching assistant commented that he found my switch between formal and informal style "jarring." I think he was specifically referring to for instance switching between phrases like "this essay will show" and "I am going to demonstrate."

My Question:

Can someone explain why this might be "jarring"? What is wrong with switching between these two styles? How do I avoid doing it?

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In general, when you write, you want to pick a single register, appropriate to the audience and your goals, and stick to it. When you do that, your voice recedes appropriately into the background, and the reader can focus on your content. An informal phrase in a formal essay is like showing up to a corporate workplace in Bermuda shorts and a t-shirt. The reverse situation is like going to a neighborhood cookout in a suit and tie. People will get caught up in the inappropriateness of your presentation, and lose track of your message.

As far as avoiding this, it's really just a matter of reading enough formal writing to get used to the conventions. Usually, as @tave mentioned, you avoid first person statements ("I"). You'll also want to avoid second person ("you"), as well as contractions ("can't") and folksy idioms ("happy as a pig in mud!"). These conventions can vary, however --some academic settings actually expect writing to flout such standard conventions.

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  • I read a ton. So its not a volume issue. But I think I am getting confused as you say about that flouting line. Does this mean I need to ask what the policy is for a given class on using the first person? – Stan Shunpike May 1 '15 at 20:44
  • It's more of picking one and sticking to it. And usually you can tell which one based on the readings you are given in the class. – Chris Sunami supports Monica May 2 '15 at 1:54
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I work in a university doing research and many of my personal friends are regularly publishing academic authors. From my observation I can say that those writing in a highly formal style talk like they write in private, too. It is their language. They read almost exclusively formal writing, they converse in it about sophisticated topics, and they use it when they speak with their children (thereby adding to the advantage that children from an academic background have over students from non-academic families), and when they write they don't have to switch styles or make an effort to maintain it.

If you want to master formal writing, you must make formal language a habit, both in input and output.

On the other hand, much of academic writing today is written in a more informal style, which in my opinion often eases comprehension and increases my reading pleasure. The demands of your tutors and professors aside, you should not worry too much about the formality of your language, but rather about its understandability and clarity and, beyond that, feel free to develop your own style. This may take some time, a lot of reading, and much writing and trying out what works best (for you).

As for first or third person in academic writing, there are a few questions and useful answers on this site. Use the site search to find them.

In short:

In the past it was the norm to write in an impersonal style to give an impression of objectivity. Today objectivity must be proven in the description of your methodology, and every action must clearly be attributed to its agent by the use of personal pronouns. Because of that, academic texts today are generally written in the first person singular or plural, depending on the number of authors.

The APA Manual explains this in much detail and with many examples, and I recommend you to read it even if you format your text following another style guide.

Finally, you really shouldn't guess what your teaching assistant meant, but ask him or her to explain their critique and give an example in your text.

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It is traditional to write essays in the third person. I can remember teaching students to avoid the first person. That said, particularly if the assessment criteria asks for personal response, institutions/examining bodies may be quite happy with the first person. You have to look at sample answers, etc. and work out what they want.

On the point of switching between the two: I can't imagine a circumstance where it would be acceptable. Stick to your first person pronouns ('I', 'me', 'we', 'us') or your third person pronouns.

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As others have said, pick one and stick to it. I think the Bermuda shorts analogy posted by Chris Sunami is pretty on point. My undergraduate degree is a double major in Philosophy and Communication Studies: Philosophy-style essays are more commonly written in the first person, whereas the Communication Studies expects the more traditional third person perspective. I have a few thoughts that are informed by bits of wisdom I have gathered from various professors and TAs over the years.

  1. I believe that writing in the first person is a great way to be direct, concise and assertive about your opinions. This is why Philosophy professors will allow and even encourage writing in the first person, as you are often given very short word limits. You can be eloquent and academic while writing in the first person, so don't let stuffy old essay rules dissuade you from using it (unless your Professor is adamant that you do not). Many, many peer-reviewed journal articles successfully use the first person.

I am currently reading an article entitled "Amnesia, Nostalgia and the Politics of Place Memory" by Margaret Farrar, who frequently uses "I" statements. Something she does which is interesting, and totally contradicts both me and your teaching assistant, is refer to the article she is writing, i.e. "This article is motivated by the question..." I think the reason she is successful and you were not so successful is because the way she phrases it, it is not the article doing the work or the thinking, but the author. I hope that makes sense. Saying something like "this essay will show" makes it sound like the essay is a living, breathing entity that is doing the thinking for you, whereas "In this essay, I will show" makes it sound like YOU are doing the thinking.

  1. Try removing "I" statements or "this essay will show x" statements altogether. For example, instead of saying "I am going to demonstrate that Moleskines are not the best notebooks on the market by comparing price, sustainability and paper quality," try something like "A thorough analysis of price, sustainability and paper quality reveals that Moleskines are not the best notebooks on the market."

  2. Edit! Need I say more? Now that you know this is a problem, it should be something you look for when you are reading your essays over.

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The key in writing is consistency. If you use an Oxford Comma, use it every time. If you use "one," instead of "he/she," use it throughout the entire essay (I.e. "One may not feel..." As opposed to "He may not feel...").

What your grader is probably saying is "jarring" (which I agree, inconsistency is jarring and pulls you out), is that your writing isn't necessarily incorrect, but it is inconsistent, and that's a problem for academic writing. Anytime a piece is inconsistent, it pulls the reader out of the piece.

What I'd recommend is ignoring the grader's comment about "formal/informal" and seek to make the paper's usage of phrases (like the examples you've provided) consistent.

As a rule of thumb, academic papers should not use the first person (I, me, my) unless it is instructed that it is okay. Don't assume it's okay unless you ask or it is in the prompt.

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