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
People approach essay writing in so many different ways. Some spend a long time worrying about how to set about writing an informative piece, which will educate, or even entertain, the readers. But it is not just the content that's the issue; it is also the way the content is - or ought to be - written. More may have asked the question: what should I use, the first-person point of view (POV) or the third-person?
Choosing between the two has confused more than a few essay-writing people. Sure, it can be easy to fill the piece up with healthy chunks of information and content, but it takes a deeper understanding of both points of view to be able to avoid slipping in and out one or the other - or at least realize it when it happens. Sure, a Jekyll and Hyde way of writing may be clever, but it can be very confusing in non-fiction forms, like the essay.
Why is all this important?
Continually swapping from the first-person to the third-person POV may leave the reader confused. Who exactly is talking here? Why does one part of the essay sound so detached and unaffected, while the next suddenly appears to be intimate and personal?
Indeed, making the mistake of using both points of view - without realizing it - leaves readers with the impression of the essay being haphazardly written.
Using first-person: advantages and disadvantages
The use of the first-person narration in an essay means that the author is writing exclusively from his or her point of view - no one else's. The story or the information will thus be told from the perspective of "I," and "We," with words like "me," "us," "my," "mine," "our," and "ours" often found throughout the essay.
Example: "I first heard about this coastal island two years ago, when the newspapers reported the worst oil spill in recent history. To me, the story had the impact of a footnote - evidence of my urban snobbishness. Luckily, the mess of that has since been cleaned up; its last ugly ripple has ebbed."
You will see from the above example that the writer, while not exactly talking about himself or herself, uses the first-person point of view to share information about a certain coastal island, and a certain oil spill. The decision to do so enables the essay to have a more personal, subjective, and even intimate tone of voice; it also allows the author to refer to events, experiences, and people while giving (or withholding) information as he or she pleases.
The first-person view also provides an opportunity to convey the viewpoint character or author's personal thoughts, emotions, opinion, feelings, judgments, understandings, and other internal information (or information that only the author possesses) - as in "the story had the impact of a footnote". This then allows readers to be part of the narrator's world and identify with the viewpoint character.
This is why the first-person point of view is a natural choice for memoirs, autobiographical pieces, personal experience essays, and other forms of non-fiction in which the author serves also as a character in the story.
The first-person POV does have certain limitations. First and most obvious is the fact that the author is limited to a single point of view, which can be narrow, restrictive, and awkward. Less careful or inexperienced writers using first-person may also fall to the temptation of making themselves the focal subject - even the sole subject - of the essay, even in cases that demand focus and information on other subjects, characters, or events.
Using third-person: advantages and disadvantages
The third-person point of view, meanwhile, is another flexible narrative device used in essays and other forms of non-fiction wherein the author is not a character within the story, serving only as an unspecified, uninvolved, and unnamed narrator conveying information throughout the essay. In third-person writing, people and characters are referred to as "he," "she," "it," and "they"; "I" and "we" are never used (unless, of course, in a direct quote).
Example: "Local residents of the coastal island province suffered an ecological disaster in 2006, in the form of an oil spill that was reported by national newspapers to be worst in the country's history. Cleaning up took two years, after which they were finally able to go back to advertising their island's beach sands as 'pure' and its soil, 'fertile.'"
Obviously, the use of the third-person point of view here makes the essay sound more factual - and not just a personal collection of the author's own ideas, opinions, and thoughts. It also lends the piece a more professional and less casual tone. Moreover, writing in third-person can help establish the greatest possible distance between reader and author - and the kind of distance necessary to present the essay's rhetorical situations.
The essay being non-fiction, it is important to keep in mind that the primary purpose of the form is to convey information about a particular subject to the reader. The reader has the right to believe that the essay is factually correct, or is at least given context by factual events, people, and places.
The third-person point of view is more common in reports, research papers, critiques, biography, history, and traditional journalistic essays. This again relates to the fact that the author can, with the third-person POV, create a formal distance, a kind of objectivity, appropriate in putting up arguments or presenting a case.