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Why is it unprofessional to use the first person in a formal essay?

I was writing an argumentative paper for my Language Arts AP class, and I got docked points for having "I" in there.

Can you please help me wrap my head around this logic?

  • It's not necessarily unprofessional, it's simply uncommon. If you got docked points for using the pronoun, but the rules of marking had not been explained beforehand, then you have a legitimate complaint. (Not that you'll likely win any such argument . . .) – Jason Bassford May 9 '18 at 5:46
  • Arguably, I could write a formal essay that starts with, "When I was young, I remember . . . but today, its use is less common." In such a context, my use of the pronoun seems reasonable to me—because it's only my memory that I can be speaking about with authority. (I could replace I with my name or this author but both of those constructs seem even more awkward to me.) I think the point is, traditionally, not to use I casually. – Jason Bassford May 9 '18 at 5:52
  • @JasonBassford I think your statement is misleading. The actual case is that the rules have changed. At one time, use of the explicit first person was absolutely (if unofficially) forbidden in formal writing. Since then, the unwritten rules have greatly relaxed. – Chris Sunami May 9 '18 at 13:31
  • @ChrisSunami I was only talking about the current rules. I'm assuming that essays aren't still being written in the past. :) – Jason Bassford May 9 '18 at 16:23
  • @JasonBassford Touché – Chris Sunami May 9 '18 at 16:36
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It's often seen as too casual

Consider the following phrase:

As I stated earlier, Romeo & Juliet is a tragedy.

The use of "I" in this statement implies that the author has a connection to the reader and that it's fairly casual. That's not always the case. If you were writing that on your AP Language test, the test taker isn't anybody who has met you.

Removing it takes away that implied personal connection.

As stated earlier, Romeo & Juliet is a tragedy.

It implies credibility that may not exist

The following statements have a different "feel" to them.

My name is William Shakespeare, author of the play. As I stated earlier, Romeo & Juliet is a tragedy.

My name is Michael Sexton, Director of the Public Shakespeare Initiative. As I stated earlier, Romeo & Juliet is a tragedy.

My name is Jay, an English student. As I stated earlier, Romeo & Juliet is a tragedy.

If the first two people wrote your essay, they could probably get away with using "I" because they have the credibility to back it up. But you as an English student don't (yet). Removing "I" statements means the focus is no longer on yourself and your thoughts, but rather on the arguments to back it up.

Use of "I" often a symptom of underlying grammatical or presentational problems

Using the word "I" in and of itself can be very effective, but at the high school level, it's often indicative of other problems.

Using a weak statement instead of an authoritative one

Consider the following phrase:

I conclude that Romeo and Juliet is a tragic story.

This is a weak statement. You might imagine it being followed with "but I could be wrong". Removing that phrase is more authoritative.

Romeo and Juliet is a tragic story.

Stating your opinion, rather than relying on sources

If you find yourself using the word "I", it might mean that you are relying on your own research instead of that of others.

I conclude Romeo and Juliet is a tragic story.

If you were William Shakespeare, that would be enough because of your credibility. But you aren't, meaning that this is just your unsourced opinion. The following phrase is better.

Dozens of literary critics have concluded that Romeo and Juliet as a tragic story. [citation]

Injecting feelings or subjectivity into intellectual, objective arguments

A lot of high schoolers use "I" in conjunction with feeling phrases.

I believe that Romeo and Juliet is a tragic story.

I think that Romeo and Juliet is a tragic story.

I would argue that Romeo and Juliet is a tragic story.

All of these are problematic because they rely on emotions and opinions, rather than facts, and they lack authority for that reason.

Turning an objective statement into a subjective one

As parodied by the webcomic XKCD, sometimes things are objectively true.

The Gateway Arch is the most recognizable arch in St. Louis.

Using an "I" statement can weaken that and make it subjective.

I believe that the Gateway Arch is the most recognizable arch in St. Louis.

If Romeo & Juliet meets the criteria of a tragedy, just say it. Chances are that "I" statements like "I conclude that..." are going to weaken that argument and make it seem more subjective.

Granted, there are times where a statement should be subjective, but they are rarer in formal essays and there are other ways to express that without using the word "I".

Finally, it doesn't match with conventions used in many types of writing

The answer may boil down to "because other people don't do it."

Do your textbooks use the first person when describing concepts? Do newspaper articles (aside from opinion pieces) do it? Part of writing is following the conventions of the type you are using, because that's what the user expects. As you may have noticed, Stack Exchange has conventions too, like not saying "Thanks! -Jay" at the end of your questions.

Part of the conventions of analytical academic writing is that the first person is rarely used. For instance, this article from the Journal of Palestine Studies examines media portrayal of Israelis and Palestinians in modern culture. Not once in the entire article does it use "I" or "we". This is typical in the vast majority of academic articles I've read.

Those who say that you should stop using "I" because your teacher says so are probably alluding to this reason. The convention your teacher has established in his or her class is that formal essays do not use the word "I". Hopefully, those conventions aren't arbitrary and are reflective of real-world usage, but regardless, that's the convention established. Going against it can be jarring to what your readers expect.

  • RE make it subjective: True that use of "I" can make it subjective. But sometimes this is correct. "In my opinion, the atomic number of Helium is 2" adds an unnecessary and inaccurate subjective, implying that the atomic number of Helium is a matter of opinion and not an objective fact. But on the flip side, baldly stating, "There is intelligent life on other planets" implies that this is a proven fact and not a debatable conjecture. These cases are probably trivial because most people know that the first is a fact and the second an opinion. But a statement one way or the other could be ... – Jay May 9 '18 at 5:16
  • ... misleading on less well-known statements. Like is I wrote an article describing some new scientific theory, and I said, "the Miller-Crawford Theory is the best explanation of the structure of the nucleus yet proposed" (I just made up that name, not a real theory), a reader might understand that to mean that this is a proven fact or at least a broad consensus of scientists, when perhaps I am expressing my opinion about a question that scientists in the field consider controversial. – Jay May 9 '18 at 5:19
  • @Jay Fair point that removing "I" can make something seem more settled and proven than it actually is. Do you have any recommendations on how I could improve this answer? (Feel free to edit it yourself if you'd like). – Thunderforge May 9 '18 at 14:49
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    I wouldn't dream of editing someone else's answer besides fixing an obvious spelling mistake or such. I think pretty much everything you said was true, I'd just add that there is a flip side: sometimes we WANT to make an assertion weak or subjective, etc. – Jay May 9 '18 at 17:17
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There's nothing inherently wrong with using the word "I" in an essay.

I haven't read your essay, so it may be that it was inappropriate in that particular essay.

But a general rule of life that I follow: If the teacher or my boss or someone in authority says to do X if I want to get a good grade or a pay raise or whatever, then I do X, whether I think it's a good idea or not. Unless it's some profound moral issue. You're not going to win by arguing about it. When you turn in a paper to this teacher, follow the teacher's rules. When you graduate the class, you can decide which rules make sense and you want to follow in general, and which don't.

  • I understand where you're coming from, but I'm still young and don't quite understand fully the purpose of excluding certain words or subjects in academic writing. – Aspen the Artist and Author May 8 '18 at 20:44
  • My essay was about popular culture, and their views on the Greek God Hades. – Aspen the Artist and Author May 8 '18 at 20:44
  • There are many reasons why personal pronouns might be frowned upon. Take a look at this (example) guide to the use of personal pronouns for some enlightenment. But in reality, only your teacher can answer this specific question in proper context. One could guess and say that perhaps she wanted you to maintain an air of scientific impartiality. Too much "I found this" and "I think that" might lead one to conclude that your opinions and perceptions are clouding any useful data & conclusions! – elemtilas May 8 '18 at 21:40
  • @elemtilas Yes, the article you cited is a good one. In retrospect, perhaps my answer should have included some discussion of when personal pronouns are appropriate in an essay and when not. – Jay May 9 '18 at 5:03
  • This is basically the answer I would have given. Lots of people use "I" in a professional level essay. But if your teacher doesn't want you to, then you don't. Simple as that. It's also good practice to learn how to write an essay without using first person. You can also ask your teacher if you can rewrite it to remove the first person for extra credit (some teachers will say yes). – Cyn Nov 14 '18 at 15:18
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I personally enjoy using personal pronouns in my essays, but only when they actually help me get my point across– for instance citing personal experiences as anecdotal evidence– or if I'm using them in my hook. They can bring a sense of informality/candor into the paper that can be both beneficial (deviates from the stark, run-of-the-mill essay norms and creates connection with audience) or detrimental (adopts a haphazardly casual tone that runs away with the author's arguments) depending on when and how they're used. As long as you know what you're doing, you should be fine.

I forgot to add; of course, if your instructor wants you to write in a certain style, definitely listen to him or her so you don't get points docked off. If it's an essay you're writing for fun or for a publication that has looser rules, then go for it!

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You may refer to yourself (using "I") in a formal essay if you report something that you have objectively done, such as conducted an experiment:

I have measured the body height of 3,456 randomly chosen US women and found that on average they were ...

Note.

Current academic style (MLA, APA) requires that you clearly indicate who did what and demands that you use "I" if it was you who did it! Do not ever cloak yourself in plural ("We measured ...", when you were alone) or indirect phrases ("3,456 women have been measured ...").


You must not give your personal opinion in an argumentative paper. An argumentative paper is an exercise in logic, where one argument is played out against another. These arguments are not your opinion, but views that any person might have. Your task is to take on a neutral, unbiased perspective and find the more plausible argument.

If you are given the task to argue for a certain view, you still must pretend that you write from a neutral and unbiased viewpoint, even if you don't. It is a style.

protected by Community Dec 18 '18 at 19:26

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