Many times, high school students are told not to use first person (“I,” “we,” “my,” “us,” and so forth) in their essays. As a college student, you should realize that this is a rule that can and should be broken—at the right time, of course.
By now, you’ve probably written a personal essay, memoir, or narrative that used first person. After all, how could you write a personal essay about yourself, for instance, without using the dreaded “I” word?
However, academic essays differ from personal essays; they are typically researched and use a formal tone. Because of these differences, when students write an academic essay, they quickly shy away from first person because of what they have been told in high school or because they believe that first person feels too informal for an intellectual, researched text. Yet while first person can definitely be overused in academic essays (which is likely why your teachers tell you not to use it), there are moments in a paper when it is not only appropriate, but it is actually effective and/or persuasive to use first person. The following are a few instances in which it is appropriate to use first person in an academic essay:
- Including a personal anecdote: You have more than likely been told that you need a strong “hook” to draw your readers in during an introduction. Sometimes, the best hook is a personal anecdote, or a short amusing story about yourself. In this situation, it would seem unnatural not to use first-person pronouns such as “I” and “myself.” Your readers will appreciate the personal touch and will want to keep reading! (For more information about incorporating personal anecdotes into your writing, see "Employing Narrative in an Essay.")
- Establishing your credibility (ethos): Ethos is a term stemming back to Ancient Greece that essentially means “character” in the sense of trustworthiness or credibility. A writer can establish her ethos by convincing the reader that she is trustworthy source. Oftentimes, the best way to do that is to get personal—tell the reader a little bit about yourself. (For more information about ethos, see "Ethos.")
For instance, let’s say you are writing an essay arguing that dance is a sport. Using the occasional personal pronoun to let your audience know that you, in fact, are a classically trained dancer—and have the muscles and scars to prove it—goes a long way in establishing your credibility and proving your argument. And this use of first person will not distract or annoy your readers because it is purposeful.
- Clarifying passive constructions: Often, when writers try to avoid using first person in essays, they end up creating confusing, passive sentences.
For instance, let’s say I am writing an essay about different word processing technologies, and I want to make the point that I am using Microsoft Word to write this essay. If I tried to avoid first-person pronouns, my sentence might read: “Right now, this essay is being written in Microsoft Word.” While this sentence is not wrong, it is what we call passive—the subject of the sentence is being acted upon because there is no one performing the action. To most people, this sentence sounds better: “Right now, I am writing this essay in Microsoft Word.” Do you see the difference? In this case, using first person makes your writing clearer.
- Stating your position in relation to others: Sometimes, especially in an argumentative essay, it is necessary to state your opinion on the topic. Readers want to know where you stand, and it is sometimes helpful to assert yourself by putting your own opinions into the essay. You can imagine the passive sentences (see above) that might occur if you try to state your argument without using the word “I.” The key here is to use first person sparingly. Use personal pronouns enough to get your point across clearly without inundating your readers with this language.
Now, the above list is certainly not exhaustive. The best thing to do is to use your good judgment, and you can always check with your instructor if you are unsure of his or her perspective on the issue. Ultimately, if you feel that using first person has a purpose or will have a strategic effect on your audience, then it is probably fine to use first-person pronouns. Just be sure not to overuse this language, at the risk of sounding narcissistic, self-centered, or unaware of others’ opinions on a topic.
The First Person
Use the First Person
Writing in first person means writing from the author’s point of view or perspective. This point of view is used for autobiographical writing as well as narrative. The first person is an alternative to second person, which uses "you," as in the sentence "You are the smartest person in the room." The first person is also an alternative to third person, which uses "he," "she," or "it," as in the sentence "He is the most handsome person in the room."
First Person Writing Examples
- “It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived.” - To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- “I cannot but conclude that the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth.” - Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
- “I could not unlove him now, merely because I found that he had ceased to notice me.” - Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
- “And I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.” - The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- “I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us -- don't tell!
They'd banish -- you know!” - I'm Nobody! Who are You? by Emily Dickinson
- “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore” The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe
- “I wandered lonely as a cloud, That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd, A host, of golden daffodils;” I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud by William Wordsworth
- “I knew a man by sight,
A blameless wight,
Who, for a year or more,
Had daily passed my door,
Yet converse none had had with him.” I Knew a Man By Sight by Henry David Thoreau
- “All I'm askin' is for a little respect when you come home.” Respect - Aretha Franklin
- “Oh yeah, I'll tell you something, I think you'll understand
When I say that something, I wanna hold your hand” - Beatles
- “My mother was a tailor. She sewed my new bluejeans
My father was a gamblin' man down in New Orleans” House of The Rising Sun - Animals
- “Under the boardwalk, Down by the sea, yeah
On a blanket with my baby, Is where I'll be” Under The Boardwalk - Drifters
- “I keep the ends out for the tie that binds
Because you're mine, I walk the line” I Walk the Line - Johnny Cash
- “They say we're young and we don't know, We won't find out until we grow” I Got You, Babe - Sonny and Cher
- “Then I saw her face, now I'm a believer, Not a trace of doubt in my mind.” I'm A Believer - Monkees
- “I know you've deceived me, now here's a surprise
I know that you have 'cause there's magic in my eyes” I Can See For Miles - The Who
- “I love the colorful clothes she wears
And the way the sunlight plays upon her hair” Good Vibrations - The Beach Boys
- “I heard it through the grapevine not much longer would you be mine.” I Heard It Through The Grapevine - Marvin Gaye
- “Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy, sunshine in my eyes can make me cry.” Sunshine on My Shoulders - John Denver
These examples help to show how to write in first person.