I actually had a few people suggest I do a post about using “I” in an essay. It’s a subject I talk about frequently as a tutor. There are many little nuances about using “I” that there is no singular rule to use it or not use it, but several different guidelines to let you know if it is acceptable or not.
Guideline 1: Know your Professor
It seems like a silly guideline, but ultimately, if you’re in college you’re writing papers for your professor. Simple as that. Having been an English major, I know how easy it is to get caught up in your “academic nobility”–the desire to write for truth and justice and all of that other contrived mumbo-jumbo. You’ll write what you WANT to write, right? Wrong. I made this mistake as a freshman in college and learned very, very quickly that I’m following my professor’s rules. If your professor doesn’t want you to use “I” in an essay, don’t do it. Simple as that. If he or she doesn’t specify–ASK. Your professor will be much happier knowing that you want to do well than to see you shooting into the darkness.
Guideline 2: Know your Essay
Different types of essays tend to have different “rules.” For example, it’s not appropriate to use “I” in a research paper. Think about it, you’re gathering all of this formal information to derive a particular conclusion–who cares what you think about the subject if you have Derrida saying it for you? Another example, as a high school friend pointed out to me, “I” is not appropriate in legal briefs. Using the first person (“I,” “we,” “us,” “our”) establishes some sort of informal connection. Ask yourself, “Is this a formal paper where I want to have some distance from my audience, or is this a paper where I want to connect with my audience?” There are papers that strive for the latter, namely narrative essays. Narrative essays tell a story of some sort and try to move the reader in some way. Using the first person can help establish that connection, as the reader is then placed into the author’s shoes.
Guideline 3: “When in Doubt, Take it Out”
So let’s say you’re not sure about Guidelines 1 and 2. You didn’t ask your professor, you’re not quite sure how formal the paper is, and you’re not sure if you can use “I.” This is where my little saying comes in handy–if you don’t know what to do, take it out. It’s generally more appropriate to be a tad over-formal than too informal, so if you remember this, you should be good to go.
I don’t want to read this paper to see if I have an “I” in it.
Beautiful trick to use in Microsoft word: “ctrl f” Hit those two buttons together and it brings up the “Find” feature. In the type box, put space I space. So like this: I . That will find every individual word of “I” so you can eliminate them if you have them. Do the same for “we,” “our,” “us,” “ours,” etc. This is also handy for eliminating contractions.
Ugh. I have an “I.”
“I” is pretty easy to take out actually. You can usually keep the basic sentence structure and just switch the first person word to an appropriate third person word or phrase. Third person words to not talk to your reader (no “you”), and they do not refer to yourself (“I”). They are words like he, she, they, himself, herself, their, them, one, someone, a person, people, a reader, the audience, etc. The list goes on and on. So let’s look at an example of how you would switch from first person to third:
Incorrect: I feel this book’s protagonist is an antihero. Correct:One may find that this book’s protagonist is an antihero.
Incorrect: I never knew that, combined, we could do that. Correct: She (or he) never knew that, combined, they could do that
Know your professor, know the type of essay you’re working on–if you don’t know either, remember: “When in doubt, take it out.” Good luck!