Can I use “I” and “Me” in an academic essay?

Can I use “I” and “Me” in an academic essay?

High school and college students have asked me this question many times.

My initial answer?

It’s complicated.

Typically, this question stems from a student’s experience with a high school or middle school teacher who advised, even commanded, students to never, ever use first-person pronouns in their essays. And so, when I get this question, I tend to hear a sub-question lying just beneath the surface: was my teacher right or wrong? Or sometimes even: was my teacher good or bad, smart or dumb?

Because of all the assumptions and back-story that I sense in this question, my answer always comes with many caveats.

The short, reductive, easily misunderstood version of my answer:

You can use first-person pronouns in your essays, but you probably shouldn’t.

But like I said, it’s complicated.

My sense is that teachers usually tell their students to avoid “I” or “me” (or “we,” “us,” “my,” and “our”) because these pronouns are often used poorly. The same goes for other “rules” that aren’t really rules: Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. Never begin a sentence with “And,” “But,” or “Because.” Place your thesis in the last sentence of your introduction paragraph.

None of these are iron-clad rules. Rather, they are strategic pieces of advice that your teachers have turned into “rules” because, well, students need directions (or at least many teachers think they do). While none of these guidelines deserve to be universally enforced, they do help provide students with a structure that, oftentimes, helps produce effectively communicated essays.

But back to “I,” “me,” and other first-person pronouns—what’s actually wrong with using them? The problem I see most often is that students use these pronouns in thesis statements like these:

“In my personal opinion, the central character in Hamlet is Ophelia.”

“I think that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s frequent use of imagery related to vision in The Great Gatsby shows that early twentieth-century visual culture was a product of the superficial consumerism of 1920s America.”

These two thesis statements are far from equal, and both could, in theory, be effectively deployed in the context of a well-developed essay. But they both share a common problem. Both statements reduce their arguments to matters of personal opinion—“In my personal opinion,” “I think.”

The problem with such statements is that they serve as crutches, allowing their writers to hide behind a subjective viewpoint that’s immune to reasoning or criticism. The phrasing from both seems to emerge from the common-sense view that “everyone is entitled to their opinion.” But one of the main measures of effective expository or argument-based writing is reasoning, which can never rely solely on personal opinion.

To be a convincing writer, it doesn’t matter so much what you think as explaining why you think it. Your opinion might be convincing to you, but if you want to convince a reader, you’re going to have to move beyond “I” and “my” statements like the ones above.

Also: both statements would be stronger without those crutches:

“The central character in Hamlet is Ophelia.”

“F. Scott Fitzgerald’s frequent use of imagery related to vision in The Great Gatsby shows that early twentieth-century visual culture was a product of the superficial consumerism of 1920s America.”

These sentences are bolder, more interesting, and more likely to encourage their writers to provide solid support.

But there are other considerations to keep in mind. The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a useful handout for navigating the first-person pronoun question. Consider this example, quoted from UNC:

“As I observed the communication styles of first-year Carolina women, I noticed frequent use of non-verbal cues.”

In this case, we’re dealing with an essay rooted in a social-scientific study. By using “I,” the writer has reduced the study to a matter of individual experience—hardly the scientific foundation that the study aims for. Consider the revision:

“A study of the communication styles of first-year Carolina women revealed frequent use of non-verbal cues.”

As UNC explains, “Avoiding the first person here creates the desired impression of an observed phenomenon that could be reproduced and also creates a stronger, clearer statement.” If your aim is to communicate scientific or fact-based observations—be they from a novel or a laboratory—it’s usually best to avoid the first person.

But as I said, it’s complicated. There are cases that all but require you use first-person pronouns. Consider this example from UNC:

“In studying American popular culture of the 1980s, the question of to what degree materialism was a major characteristic of the cultural milieu was explored.”

To avoid first-person pronouns, this writer is forced into an awkward passive construction (“the question . . . was explored”). The first person corrects this problem. And in this sentence, the first person does not take away from the air of objectivity that the writer is aiming for:

“In our study of American popular culture of the 1980s, we explored the degree to which materialism characterized the cultural milieu.”

This is an explanation of method, of how “we” did what we did. In most cases, you want to assert your claims as true—not infallible, not airtight, not perfect, but nonetheless true, as you see it. But you also don’t want to pretend that there isn’t a human subject behind your reading, research, and writing. In the case of a sentence like the one above, avoiding the first person produces a contrived sentence that rings false.

And so, all things considered, the most honest advice I can give on the “I” question is this:

If you’re not sure whether to use first-person pronouns, first write the sentence in the way that feels most natural to you.

(It’s crucial that, in a first draft, you write with the idea that no one in the world but you will ever read what you just put down on the page. This is the most liberating and urgent advice I could share with any writer.)

After you’ve written the sentence out, assuming it uses the first person, try this: cross out your first-person statement—your “In my opinion,” or “I think,” or “We contend.” Then see how the sentence holds up without the first person. Is the statement now stronger, bolder, more assertive, more “objective” sounding? Or does it now feel garbled?

In the end, the question of whether or not to use “I” is ultimately up to you.