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Ai, ethics & human agency, collaboration, information literacy, writing process, using first person in an academic essay: when is it okay.

  • CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 by Jenna Pack Sheffield

first person academic essay

Related Concepts: Academic Writing – How to Write for the Academic Community ; First-Person Point of View ; Rhetorical Analysis; Rhetorical Stance ; The First Person ; Voice

In order to determine whether or not you can speak or write from the first-person point of view, you need to engage in rhetorical analysis. You need to question whether your audience values and accepts the first person as a legitimate rhetorical stance. Source: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. 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 also more 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.

Recommended Readings:

  • A Synthesis of Professor Perspectives on Using First and Third Person in Academic Writing
  • Finding the Bunny: How to Make a Personal Connection to Your Writing
  • First-Person Point of View

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Brevity – Say More with Less

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Coherence – How to Achieve Coherence in Writing

Coherence – How to Achieve Coherence in Writing

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Inclusivity – Inclusive Language

Inclusivity – Inclusive Language

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The Elements of Style – The DNA of Powerful Writing

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Scholarly Voice: First-Person Point of View

First-person point of view.

Since 2007, Walden academic leadership has endorsed the APA manual guidance on appropriate use of the first-person singular pronoun "I," allowing the use of this pronoun in all Walden academic writing except doctoral capstone abstracts, which should not contain first person pronouns.

In addition to the pointers below, APA 7, Section 4.16 provides information on the appropriate use of first person in scholarly writing.

Inappropriate Uses:   I feel that eating white bread causes cancer. The author feels that eating white bread causes cancer. I found several sources (Marks, 2011; Isaac, 2006; Stuart, in press) that showed a link between white bread consumption and cancer.   Appropriate Use:   I surveyed 2,900 adults who consumed white bread regularly. In this chapter, I present a literature review on research about how seasonal light changes affect depression.
Confusing Sentence:   The researcher found that the authors had been accurate in their study of helium, which the researcher had hypothesized from the beginning of their project.   Revision:   I found that Johnson et al. (2011) had been accurate in their study of helium, which I had hypothesized since I began my project.
Passive voice:   The surveys were distributed and the results were compiled after they were collected.   Revision:   I distributed the surveys, and then I collected and compiled the results.
Appropriate use of first person we and our :   Two other nurses and I worked together to create a qualitative survey to measure patient satisfaction. Upon completion, we presented the results to our supervisor.

Make assumptions about your readers by putting them in a group to which they may not belong by using first person plural pronouns. Inappropriate use of first person "we" and "our":

  • We can stop obesity in our society by changing our lifestyles.
  • We need to help our patients recover faster.

In the first sentence above, the readers would not necessarily know who "we" are, and using a phrase such as "our society " can immediately exclude readers from outside your social group. In the second sentence, the author assumes that the reader is a nurse or medical professional, which may not be the case, and the sentence expresses the opinion of the author.

To write with more precision and clarity, hallmarks of scholarly writing, revise these sentences without the use of "we" and "our."

  • Moderate activity can reduce the risk of obesity (Hu et al., 2003).
  • Staff members in the health care industry can help improve the recovery rate for patients (Matthews, 2013).

Pronouns Video

  • APA Formatting & Style: Pronouns (video transcript)

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The Writing Center • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Should I Use “I”?

What this handout is about.

This handout is about determining when to use first person pronouns (“I”, “we,” “me,” “us,” “my,” and “our”) and personal experience in academic writing. “First person” and “personal experience” might sound like two ways of saying the same thing, but first person and personal experience can work in very different ways in your writing. You might choose to use “I” but not make any reference to your individual experiences in a particular paper. Or you might include a brief description of an experience that could help illustrate a point you’re making without ever using the word “I.” So whether or not you should use first person and personal experience are really two separate questions, both of which this handout addresses. It also offers some alternatives if you decide that either “I” or personal experience isn’t appropriate for your project. If you’ve decided that you do want to use one of them, this handout offers some ideas about how to do so effectively, because in many cases using one or the other might strengthen your writing.

Expectations about academic writing

Students often arrive at college with strict lists of writing rules in mind. Often these are rather strict lists of absolutes, including rules both stated and unstated:

  • Each essay should have exactly five paragraphs.
  • Don’t begin a sentence with “and” or “because.”
  • Never include personal opinion.
  • Never use “I” in essays.

We get these ideas primarily from teachers and other students. Often these ideas are derived from good advice but have been turned into unnecessarily strict rules in our minds. The problem is that overly strict rules about writing can prevent us, as writers, from being flexible enough to learn to adapt to the writing styles of different fields, ranging from the sciences to the humanities, and different kinds of writing projects, ranging from reviews to research.

So when it suits your purpose as a scholar, you will probably need to break some of the old rules, particularly the rules that prohibit first person pronouns and personal experience. Although there are certainly some instructors who think that these rules should be followed (so it is a good idea to ask directly), many instructors in all kinds of fields are finding reason to depart from these rules. Avoiding “I” can lead to awkwardness and vagueness, whereas using it in your writing can improve style and clarity. Using personal experience, when relevant, can add concreteness and even authority to writing that might otherwise be vague and impersonal. Because college writing situations vary widely in terms of stylistic conventions, tone, audience, and purpose, the trick is deciphering the conventions of your writing context and determining how your purpose and audience affect the way you write. The rest of this handout is devoted to strategies for figuring out when to use “I” and personal experience.

Effective uses of “I”:

In many cases, using the first person pronoun can improve your writing, by offering the following benefits:

  • Assertiveness: In some cases you might wish to emphasize agency (who is doing what), as for instance if you need to point out how valuable your particular project is to an academic discipline or to claim your unique perspective or argument.
  • Clarity: Because trying to avoid the first person can lead to awkward constructions and vagueness, using the first person can improve your writing style.
  • Positioning yourself in the essay: In some projects, you need to explain how your research or ideas build on or depart from the work of others, in which case you’ll need to say “I,” “we,” “my,” or “our”; if you wish to claim some kind of authority on the topic, first person may help you do so.

Deciding whether “I” will help your style

Here is an example of how using the first person can make the writing clearer and more assertive:

Original example:

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.

Better example using first person:

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

The original example sounds less emphatic and direct than the revised version; using “I” allows the writers to avoid the convoluted construction of the original and clarifies who did what.

Here is an example in which alternatives to the first person would be more appropriate:

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

Better example:

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

In the original example, using the first person grounds the experience heavily in the writer’s subjective, individual perspective, but the writer’s purpose is to describe a phenomenon that is in fact objective or independent of that perspective. Avoiding the first person here creates the desired impression of an observed phenomenon that could be reproduced and also creates a stronger, clearer statement.

Here’s another example in which an alternative to first person works better:

As I was reading this study of medieval village life, I noticed that social class tended to be clearly defined.

This study of medieval village life reveals that social class tended to be clearly defined.

Although you may run across instructors who find the casual style of the original example refreshing, they are probably rare. The revised version sounds more academic and renders the statement more assertive and direct.

Here’s a final example:

I think that Aristotle’s ethical arguments are logical and readily applicable to contemporary cases, or at least it seems that way to me.

Better example

Aristotle’s ethical arguments are logical and readily applicable to contemporary cases.

In this example, there is no real need to announce that that statement about Aristotle is your thought; this is your paper, so readers will assume that the ideas in it are yours.

Determining whether to use “I” according to the conventions of the academic field

Which fields allow “I”?

The rules for this are changing, so it’s always best to ask your instructor if you’re not sure about using first person. But here are some general guidelines.

Sciences: In the past, scientific writers avoided the use of “I” because scientists often view the first person as interfering with the impression of objectivity and impersonality they are seeking to create. But conventions seem to be changing in some cases—for instance, when a scientific writer is describing a project she is working on or positioning that project within the existing research on the topic. Check with your science instructor to find out whether it’s o.k. to use “I” in their class.

Social Sciences: Some social scientists try to avoid “I” for the same reasons that other scientists do. But first person is becoming more commonly accepted, especially when the writer is describing their project or perspective.

Humanities: Ask your instructor whether you should use “I.” The purpose of writing in the humanities is generally to offer your own analysis of language, ideas, or a work of art. Writers in these fields tend to value assertiveness and to emphasize agency (who’s doing what), so the first person is often—but not always—appropriate. Sometimes writers use the first person in a less effective way, preceding an assertion with “I think,” “I feel,” or “I believe” as if such a phrase could replace a real defense of an argument. While your audience is generally interested in your perspective in the humanities fields, readers do expect you to fully argue, support, and illustrate your assertions. Personal belief or opinion is generally not sufficient in itself; you will need evidence of some kind to convince your reader.

Other writing situations: If you’re writing a speech, use of the first and even the second person (“you”) is generally encouraged because these personal pronouns can create a desirable sense of connection between speaker and listener and can contribute to the sense that the speaker is sincere and involved in the issue. If you’re writing a resume, though, avoid the first person; describe your experience, education, and skills without using a personal pronoun (for example, under “Experience” you might write “Volunteered as a peer counselor”).

A note on the second person “you”:

In situations where your intention is to sound conversational and friendly because it suits your purpose, as it does in this handout intended to offer helpful advice, or in a letter or speech, “you” might help to create just the sense of familiarity you’re after. But in most academic writing situations, “you” sounds overly conversational, as for instance in a claim like “when you read the poem ‘The Wasteland,’ you feel a sense of emptiness.” In this case, the “you” sounds overly conversational. The statement would read better as “The poem ‘The Wasteland’ creates a sense of emptiness.” Academic writers almost always use alternatives to the second person pronoun, such as “one,” “the reader,” or “people.”

Personal experience in academic writing

The question of whether personal experience has a place in academic writing depends on context and purpose. In papers that seek to analyze an objective principle or data as in science papers, or in papers for a field that explicitly tries to minimize the effect of the researcher’s presence such as anthropology, personal experience would probably distract from your purpose. But sometimes you might need to explicitly situate your position as researcher in relation to your subject of study. Or if your purpose is to present your individual response to a work of art, to offer examples of how an idea or theory might apply to life, or to use experience as evidence or a demonstration of an abstract principle, personal experience might have a legitimate role to play in your academic writing. Using personal experience effectively usually means keeping it in the service of your argument, as opposed to letting it become an end in itself or take over the paper.

It’s also usually best to keep your real or hypothetical stories brief, but they can strengthen arguments in need of concrete illustrations or even just a little more vitality.

Here are some examples of effective ways to incorporate personal experience in academic writing:

  • Anecdotes: In some cases, brief examples of experiences you’ve had or witnessed may serve as useful illustrations of a point you’re arguing or a theory you’re evaluating. For instance, in philosophical arguments, writers often use a real or hypothetical situation to illustrate abstract ideas and principles.
  • References to your own experience can explain your interest in an issue or even help to establish your authority on a topic.
  • Some specific writing situations, such as application essays, explicitly call for discussion of personal experience.

Here are some suggestions about including personal experience in writing for specific fields:

Philosophy: In philosophical writing, your purpose is generally to reconstruct or evaluate an existing argument, and/or to generate your own. Sometimes, doing this effectively may involve offering a hypothetical example or an illustration. In these cases, you might find that inventing or recounting a scenario that you’ve experienced or witnessed could help demonstrate your point. Personal experience can play a very useful role in your philosophy papers, as long as you always explain to the reader how the experience is related to your argument. (See our handout on writing in philosophy for more information.)

Religion: Religion courses might seem like a place where personal experience would be welcomed. But most religion courses take a cultural, historical, or textual approach, and these generally require objectivity and impersonality. So although you probably have very strong beliefs or powerful experiences in this area that might motivate your interest in the field, they shouldn’t supplant scholarly analysis. But ask your instructor, as it is possible that they are interested in your personal experiences with religion, especially in less formal assignments such as response papers. (See our handout on writing in religious studies for more information.)

Literature, Music, Fine Arts, and Film: Writing projects in these fields can sometimes benefit from the inclusion of personal experience, as long as it isn’t tangential. For instance, your annoyance over your roommate’s habits might not add much to an analysis of “Citizen Kane.” However, if you’re writing about Ridley Scott’s treatment of relationships between women in the movie “Thelma and Louise,” some reference your own observations about these relationships might be relevant if it adds to your analysis of the film. Personal experience can be especially appropriate in a response paper, or in any kind of assignment that asks about your experience of the work as a reader or viewer. Some film and literature scholars are interested in how a film or literary text is received by different audiences, so a discussion of how a particular viewer or reader experiences or identifies with the piece would probably be appropriate. (See our handouts on writing about fiction , art history , and drama for more information.)

Women’s Studies: Women’s Studies classes tend to be taught from a feminist perspective, a perspective which is generally interested in the ways in which individuals experience gender roles. So personal experience can often serve as evidence for your analytical and argumentative papers in this field. This field is also one in which you might be asked to keep a journal, a kind of writing that requires you to apply theoretical concepts to your experiences.

History: If you’re analyzing a historical period or issue, personal experience is less likely to advance your purpose of objectivity. However, some kinds of historical scholarship do involve the exploration of personal histories. So although you might not be referencing your own experience, you might very well be discussing other people’s experiences as illustrations of their historical contexts. (See our handout on writing in history for more information.)

Sciences: Because the primary purpose is to study data and fixed principles in an objective way, personal experience is less likely to have a place in this kind of writing. Often, as in a lab report, your goal is to describe observations in such a way that a reader could duplicate the experiment, so the less extra information, the better. Of course, if you’re working in the social sciences, case studies—accounts of the personal experiences of other people—are a crucial part of your scholarship. (See our handout on  writing in the sciences for more information.)

You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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Using “I” in Academic Writing

Traditionally, some fields have frowned on the use of the first-person singular in an academic essay and others have encouraged that use, and both the frowning and the encouraging persist today—and there are good reasons for both positions (see “Should I”).

I recommend that you not look on the question of using “I” in an academic paper as a matter of a rule to follow, as part of a political agenda (see webb), or even as the need to create a strategy to avoid falling into Scylla-or-Charybdis error. Let the first-person singular be, instead, a tool that you take out when you think it’s needed and that you leave in the toolbox when you think it’s not.

Examples of When “I” May Be Needed

  • You are narrating how you made a discovery, and the process of your discovering is important or at the very least entertaining.
  • You are describing how you teach something and how your students have responded or respond.
  • You disagree with another scholar and want to stress that you are not waving the banner of absolute truth.
  • You need “I” for rhetorical effect, to be clear, simple, or direct.

Examples of When “I” Should Be Given a Rest

  • It’s off-putting to readers, generally, when “I” appears too often. You may not feel one bit modest, but remember the advice of Benjamin Franklin, still excellent, on the wisdom of preserving the semblance of modesty when your purpose is to convince others.
  • You are the author of your paper, so if an opinion is expressed in it, it is usually clear that this opinion is yours. You don’t have to add a phrase like, “I believe” or “it seems to me.”

Works Cited

Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin . Project Gutenberg , 28 Dec. 2006, www.gutenberg.org/app/uploads/sites/3/20203/20203-h/20203-h.htm#I.

“Should I Use “I”?” The Writing Center at UNC—Chapel Hill , writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/should-i-use-i/.

webb, Christine. “The Use of the First Person in Academic Writing: Objectivity, Language, and Gatekeeping.” ResearchGate , July 1992, doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2648.1992.tb01974.x.

J.S.Beniwal 05 August 2017 AT 09:08 AM

I have borrowed MLA only yesterday, did my MAEnglish in May 2017.MLA is of immense help for scholars.An overview of the book really enlightened​ me.I should have read it at bachelor's degree level.

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Dr. Raymond Harter 25 September 2017 AT 02:09 PM

I discourage the use of "I" in essays for undergraduates to reinforce a conversational tone and to "self-recognize" the writer as an authority or at least a thorough researcher. Writing a play is different than an essay with a purpose.

Osayimwense Osa 22 March 2023 AT 05:03 PM

When a student or writer is strongly and passionately interested in his or her stance and argument to persuade his or her audience, the use of personal pronoun srenghtens his or her passion for the subject. This passion should be clear in his/her expression. However, I encourage the use of the first-person, I, sparingly -- only when and where absolutely necessary.

Eleanor 25 March 2023 AT 04:03 PM

I once had a student use the word "eye" when writing about how to use pronouns. Her peers did not catch it. I made comments, but I think she never understood what eye was saying!

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Using the First Person in Academic Writing: Can I Use "I"?

#scribendiinc

Written by  Anthony Granziol

Bringing Yourself Back to Your Academic Writing: Pronouns and Perspective

When academic writing is discussed, objectivity usually crops up. Researchers are expected to perform their research in a way that prevents bias, undue influence, and incorrect results. That can mean blinding research subjects from other subjects, preventing observers from having certain information about their subjects (e.g., age, gender, race, political affiliation), and even taking the person writing the final report out of the phrasing so the information presented is not treated as an opinion.

How important is it to remove the first person in academic writing? This article will look at whether the first or third person should be used when writing academically. You may be surprised by just how much the answer depends on the context of what is being written.

The Case against Using the First Person in Academic Writing

Back in the 17th century, Francis Bacon and other like-minded scientists were trying to figure out how scientific information should be shared. Bacon supported the idea of empiricism, which translates roughly to "seeing is believing." Though Bacon wasn't the first to espouse this perspective (it has been around since roughly 600 BCE), he did formalize it. He said there was only one way to ensure the human subjectivity of such vision: write down every single step taken when performing an experiment and provide justification for each step being the way it is. Sound familiar? Bacon was trying to keep scientists from misleading themselves while experimenting, seeing what they wanted to see rather than what actually was. That remains a goal of academic writing to this day.

For most scientists, using the third person in academic writing is essential. A first-person pronoun is a warning—a sign that only a specific person or group can perform a given experiment. Using the third person takes that subjectivity out of the picture, allowing anyone to do the work. "I" did not do the work; the work just happened, or "they" did it, and "they" could be anybody, making the action universal. Does "they" refer to a male research student in Saudi Arabia or a female Asian postdoctoral fellow in Scotland or a non-binary Aboriginal biological chemistry professor in Canada? Yes.

In Support of the First Person: The Passive Problem

The problem that most schools and publishers have with the third person in academic writing is one of voice, specifically the  passive voice . Using the first person in academic writing practically guarantees the active voice will be used, since we seldom refer to ourselves passively. Nathan Sheffield pointed this out with an example for the Duke Graduate School's  Scientific Writing Resource  that is summarized here.

Active example: "We then analyzed the DNA using qPCR." The sentence is in the active voice, with "we" analyzing "DNA" with a tool, "qPCR." Simple and straightforward.

Passive example: "The DNA was then subjected to qPCR analysis." This sentence is in the passive voice, and the verb has been nominalized (turned into a noun), making the sentence bulkier with two unnecessary verbs and other words.

Yes, the nominalization could be done away with by using "The DNA was then analyzed using qPCR," but that raises the question of who performed the action. Using the third person carries ambiguity with it, and context will not always permit conciseness unless surrounding sentences explain who is doing the acting.

first person academic essay

The Importance of Striking the Right Tone

So where does that leave you if you want to write academically? It depends on what you want to write. Some contexts will permit the use of the passive voice to maintain an objective tone (which uses the third person). Other contexts will permit a subjective tone (which uses the first person) if, and this is a big "if," you can justify it. The best way to justify a subjective tone is to make it helpful by using it to show agency (e.g., "While previous studies have focused on X, I have taken a Y perspective…") or progress (e.g., "We noted X after the reaction began…").

When it comes to writing, the terms "voice" and "tone" can be confusing. They may sound similar, but they are not. They are, however, easy to distinguish from each other if you know what to look for. Think of your voice as your writing style. Most academic writers will have a style provided to them before they start writing and will have to tailor their words and referencing to match that style. Voices are clearly defined and are recognizable when reading the work of a particular author or publisher. Think of your favorite fiction writer or a news source you like. You can recognize their voice in the words they repeat and the cadence of their writing. Even journals have voices, with some providing factual descriptions with little context (so the reader can focus on described experiments), while others offer rich backgrounds before giving details on what was tested, ensuring the reader can understand the subtleties at play in the presented study.

Tone, by contrast, changes depending on content and audience. You wouldn't talk to your parents in the same tone you would use to address a first-year class or to attend a job interview. All of these situations have different audiences and information in play, so we tailor our tone accordingly. Tone is where pronouns are determined and where the choice between first or third person gets made. Since academic writing has a consistent audience (fellow authors/students seeking supported arguments on a subject they're familiar with), it should be fairly easy for you to choose a suitable tone once you know your content.

Knowing When to Use the First or Third Person

The easiest way to write for your audience and content is to answer this question: If you were picking up your article for the first time, what tone would you prefer? On the way to writing your article, you likely read several articles on the same subject. What did you notice about them? Did they all take a passive tone with careful syntax so they provided information that could not possibly be considered biased? Did they each have a different perspective denoted by the authors' writing in the first person? These are your fellow authors, so treat their work with the respect it deserves, and don't be afraid to borrow their tone while also citing their facts.

first person academic essay

Philosophy and arts articles tend to use personal experience to illustrate ideas or point out parallels between current and past work. Gender studies usually draw on specific perspectives that can be bolstered by personal experience. So trot out the "I" and "we" if writing about these subjects or if you are offering a subjective disagreement, giving instruction on how to teach, offering a narration, or describing someone's reactions.

If you are going to be writing on religious subjects (where personal devotions can draw accusations of bias) or scientific information (where the focus is duplicating your research instead of your perspective), use the third person. If you want to convince the reader of your argument's validity, "I" is not your friend , because it will be too easy for a detractor to label your logic as an opinion.  

Final Words

In summary, using the first person in academic writing successfully requires a careful assessment of context, situation, and tone. But it can be done. At the end of the day, you are the writer. If you haven't been asked to adhere to a particular style, you can use whatever literary tools are necessary to show your enthusiasm and academic worth. You can seek outside advice, including professional editing and proofreading , to help you polish your work. However, the final choice on whether to mention yourself in your writing rests with you.

Happy writing!

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Use of the First Person in Academic Writing

3-minute read

  • 29th July 2014

Early in our school lives, we are encouraged to express our thoughts and opinions. This sometimes leads to a writing style very focused on the first person, with sentences which begin ‘I believe’, ‘I think’, ‘In my opinion’, etc.

There are differing opinions about whether or not first-person pronouns should be used in academic writing . Whatever your position, though, overuse of ‘I’ or ‘my’ is not a good idea, as it can draw focus from the subject under discussion.

When Not to Use the First Person

When writing, there is no need to state that you think something. Asserting it as fact implies that you believe it. For example, take these sentences:

  • Henderson’s argument is invalid because…
  • I believe Henderson’s argument is invalid because…

These both mean the same thing. Saying ‘I believe’ is unnecessary, as it is clear that you are expressing an opinion without having to signal it explicitly!

The first sentence is also more persuasive, as the second seems like mere opinion. Your argument is not strengthened by writing ‘I think that…’, but rather by providing relevant supporting evidence.

When to Use the First Person

Sometimes the first person is useful for highlighting how your opinion differs from a thinker you are discussing. For example, in summing up, you might say ‘while Henderson has stated X, I believe the opposite’.

Unless your university forbids using ‘I’ in essays, you can also use the first person when describing your methods to avoid awkward sentences. For instance, the following sentence is a bit confusing:

It was concluded that the new technique can reduce remission rates.

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The question, then, is who made the conclusion? To ensure clarity, the sentence could be written as:

We conclude that the new technique can reduce remission rates.

This eliminates the ambiguity over who is drawing the conclusion, as well as being more impactful by using the active rather than passive voice.

The crucial thing to consider when using the first person in your work is whether it detracts from the focus of your argument. Using ‘I’ or ‘we’ when describing your methodology is generally fine, since it clarifies the role you play in the research process.

But phrases like ‘In my opinion…’ do not add to the clarity of your writing. Instead, they make it seem like your research is more about you than whatever you’re investigating!

Finally, if in any doubt, it is always best to check with your supervisor or style guide before setting to work. Good luck!

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first person academic essay

We should use ‘I’ more in academic writing – there is benefit to first-person perspective

first person academic essay

Lecturer in Critical Thinking; Curriculum Director, UQ Critical Thinking Project, The University of Queensland

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The use of the word “I” in academic writing, that is writing in the first person , has a troublesome history. Some say it makes writing too subjective, others that it’s essential for accuracy.

This is reflected in how students, particularly in secondary schools, are trained to write. Teachers I work with are often surprised that I advocate, at times, invoking the first person in essays or other assessment in their subject areas.

In academic writing the role of the author is to explain their argument dispassionately and objectively. The author’s personal opinion in such endeavours is neither here nor there.

As noted in Strunk and White’s highly influential Elements of Style – (first published in 1959) the writer is encouraged to place themselves in the background.

Write in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author.

This all seems very reasonable and scholarly. The move towards including the first person perspective, however, is becoming more acceptable in academia.

There are times when invoking the first person is more meaningful and even rigorous than not. I will give three categories in which first person academic writing is more effective than using the third person.

1. Where an academic is offering their personal view or argument

Above, I could have said “there are three categories” rather than “I will give three categories”. The former makes a claim of discovering some objective fact. The latter, a more intellectually honest and accountable approach, is me offering my interpretation.

I could also say “three categories are apparent”, but that is ignoring the fact it is apparent to me . It would be an attempt to grant too much objectivity to a position than it deserves.

In a similar vein, statements such as “it can be argued” or “it was decided”, using the passive voice, avoid responsibility. It is much better to say “I will argue that” or “we decided that” and then go on to prosecute the argument or justify the decision.

Taking responsibility for our stances and reasoning is important culturally as well as academically. In a participatory democracy, we are expected to be accountable for our ideas and choices. It is also a stand against the kinds of anonymous assertions that easily proliferate via fake and unnamed social media accounts.

Read more: Post-truth politics and why the antidote isn't simply 'fact-checking' and truth

It’s worth noting that Nature – arguably one of the world’s best science journals – prefers authors to selectively avoid the passive voice. Its writing guidelines note:

Nature journals prefer authors to write in the active voice (“we performed the experiment…”) as experience has shown that readers find concepts and results to be conveyed more clearly if written directly.

2. Where the author’s perspective is part of the analysis

Some disciplines, such as anthropology , recognise that who is doing the research and why they are doing it ought to be overtly present in their presentation of it.

first person academic essay

Removing the author’s presence can allow important cultural or other perspectives held by the author to remain unexamined. This can lead to the so-called crisis of representation , in which the interpretation of texts and other cultural artefacts is removed from any interpretive stance of the author.

This gives a false impression of objectivity. As the philosopher Thomas Nagel notes, there is no “ view from nowhere ”.

Philosophy commonly invokes the first person position, too. Rene Descartes famously inferred “I think therefore I am” ( cogito ergo sum ). But his use of the first person in Meditations on First Philosophy was not simply an account of his own introspection. It was also an invitation to the reader to think for themselves.

3. Where the author wants to show their reasoning

The third case is especially interesting in education.

I tell students of science, critical thinking and philosophy that a phrase guaranteed to raise my hackles is “I strongly believe …”. In terms of being rationally persuasive, this is not relevant unless they then go on tell me why they believe it. I want to know what and how they are thinking.

To make their thinking most clearly an object of my study, I need them to make themselves the subjects of their writing.

I prefer students to write something like “I am not convinced by Dawson’s argument because…” rather than “Dawson’s argument is opposed by DeVries, who says …”. I want to understand their thinking not just use the argument of DeVries.

Read more: Thinking about thinking helps kids learn. How can we teach critical thinking?

Of course I would hope they do engage with DeVries, but then I’d want them to say which argument they find more convincing and what their own reasons were for being convinced.

Just stating Devries’ objection is good analysis, but we also need students to evaluate and justify, and it is here that the first person position is most useful.

It is not always accurate to say a piece is written in the first or third person. There are reasons to invoke the first person position at times and reasons not to. An essay in which it is used once should not mean we think of the whole essay as from the first person perspective.

We need to be more nuanced about how we approach this issue and appreciate when authors should “place themselves in the background” and when their voice matters.

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First vs. third person

Pronouns are a set of words that replace nouns. They can be used to make your work less complicated and less repetitive. Examples of pronouns include:

  • First person : I, we, me, us
  • Second person : you
  • Third person : he, she, it, they, him, her, them

For some assignments, it is appropriate to use the first person. However, for other assignments the third person is preferred. Sometimes a mixture of the first and third person should be used for different purposes. So, check your assignment guidelines for each assignment, as it will differ for different assignment types , different style guides, and different disciplines. If you are unsure, then check with your course coordinator.

First person preference

The first person can be used to make writing more concise when providing personal reflection, stating a position, or outlining the structure of an assignment.

Some disciplines/lecturers allow or encourage the use of first or second person ('I', 'we', 'you', etc.). The use of the first person is also recommended/allowed in some style guides. For example, in the American Psychological Association Publication Manual (6th ed.) it is recommended that authors use the first person to avoid ambiguity and anthropomorphism .

How to use the first person

The following examples illustrate some ways you can use the first person in your writing.

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Avoiding subjectivity using the first person

Academic training requires students to support the claims they make by providing solid arguments and/or evidence. So, even when the first person is used in academic writing it can, and usually should, still sound objective .

How to sound objective using the first person when making a claim or stating an argument

The following examples illustrate ways to use the first person in your writing while sounding objective (i.e. making it clear that you are not just expressing an unsupported personal view and that you are concerned about facts and/or reasons rather than being influenced by personal feelings or biases).

How to use the first person in reflective writing

Reflective writing relies on personal experience, so it is necessary to use the first person.

The following examples illustrate some ways to use the first person in Reflective writing .

Third person preference

Many disciplines/lecturers discourage the use of the first or second person ('I', 'we', 'you', etc.) and prefer the use of the third person because it makes writing sound objective .

How to avoid the first person

The following examples illustrate ways to write without using the first person.

Page authorised by Director - Centre for Learner Success Last updated on 29 November, 2018

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First-Person Pronouns in Academic Writing

3-minute read

  • 11th June 2018

During school, many of us were told to never use “I” in an essay. And so we went on to college, trying our best to write papers without using any first-person pronouns. But where does this rule come from? And is it really wrong to use “I” in an essay? Read on to find out!

When Not to Use “I” in Academic Writing

It is true that using too many first-person pronouns in a college paper will look bad. This is because it looks like you’re expressing an opinion rather than discussing facts. For instance:

I think the Watergate scandal had a big effect on American politics.

The “I think” here is unnecessary. Watergate was undeniably a major incident in American politics, so it is not simply an opinion. You could even cite sources where its impact is discussed.

first person academic essay

Similarly, overuse of first-person pronouns can detract from the focus of your writing. Take the following example from a scientific paper:

I observed the sample through a microscope, and I noticed an unusual microbe.

Here, the focus is on the person conducting the study instead of the study itself. But scientific writing is supposed to be objective. It would therefore be better to say:

The sample was observed through a microscope. This revealed an unusual microbe.

By using the passive voice here, we make sure the focus is on the experiment, not the experimenter.

In both of these cases, then, it would be better to avoid use of the first person.

Using First-Person Pronouns Correctly

However, there are cases when it is correct to use first-person pronouns in an essay. These include:

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  • To emphasize or clarify your own role in a study
  • To position yourself in relation to other thinkers

For example, we could write the following without using the first person:

In studying queue formation in Starbucks, the issue of how social behavior is affected by caffeine withdrawal was explored.

However, this gives us no indication of who is conducting the study and the use of passive voice leads to an awkward sentence. We might therefore want to use first-person pronouns to ensure clarity:

In studying queue formation in Starbucks, we explored how social behavior is affected by caffeine withdrawal.

Another alternative would be using “the researcher” or “the author” to refer to ourselves in the third person. But this can also be problematic. For instance:

While Ving and Rhames (2001) argued that tea drinkers are more violent, the researchers have not found evidence to back up this claim.

The identity of “the researchers” here could be ambiguous. Does it refer to Ving and Rhames? Another study by someone else? Or is it the authors of this paper? It would therefore be better to say:

While Ving and Rhames (2001) argued that tea drinkers are more violent, we have not found evidence to back up this claim.

With this simple change, we can immediately what this sentence is saying. In general, then:

  • DO NOT use the first person if it makes your work sound overly subjective or draws focus from what you are meant to be discussing
  • But DO use the first person if it helps to ensure clarity and concision in your writing

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Academic essay writing in the first person: a guide for undergraduates

Affiliation.

  • 1 School of Nursing and Midwifery, Queen's University of Belfast.
  • PMID: 10532001
  • DOI: 10.7748/ns1999.07.13.44.1.c2644

In this article, Conal Hamill aims to contribute to the on-going debate about the appropriate use of first person writing in academic nursing assignments and provide guidance for nursing undergraduates.

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Academic essay writing in the first person: a guide for undergraduates, conal hamill nurse lecturer, school of nursing and midwifery, queen’s university of belfast.

In this article, Conal Hamill aims to contribute to the on-going debate about the appropriate use of first person writing in academic nursing assignments and provide guidance for nursing undergraduates.

Nursing Standard . 13, 44, 1-2. doi: 10.7748/ns1999.07.13.44.1.c2644

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  5. PDF First Person Usage in Academic Writing

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  6. Should I Use "I"?

    Each essay should have exactly five paragraphs. Don't begin a sentence with "and" or "because.". Never include personal opinion. Never use "I" in essays. We get these ideas primarily from teachers and other students. Often these ideas are derived from good advice but have been turned into unnecessarily strict rules in our minds.

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    Essays; First person; Academic writing; Essay writing; Want to write? Write an article and join a growing community of more than 183,400 academics and researchers from 4,954 institutions.

  13. ACHIEVE Academic Writing: Use of the First Person

    personal experience. The first person is normally used in reflective writing. (We have never heard of anyone asking students to refer to themselves pompously as "The author of this essay" in reflective writing.) When first person might be the right choice Sometimes the first person plural ("we") is used in academic writing to mean ...

  14. 1st vs. 3rd person

    The essay will examine how gender and ethnicity factors affect buying behaviour. Example 2: Describing research you conducted ... Avoiding subjectivity using the first person . Academic training requires students to support the claims they make by providing solid arguments and/or evidence. So, even when the first person is used in academic ...

  15. 'Me', 'Me', 'Me': The Use of the First Person in Academic Writing and

    It specifically explores the use of the first person in academic writing. Writing as 'I' forced comparisons between the personal and impersonal which in turn have caused me to reflect more deeply on emotive, individual and subjective analyses of personal experiences. With reference to a case study of 'me', this note is a reminder of the ...

  16. First-Person Pronouns

    First-person object pronouns ("me" and "us") Used as the object of a verb or preposition, the first-person object pronoun takes the form me (singular) or us (plural). Objects can be direct or indirect, but the object pronoun should be used in both cases. A direct object is the person or thing that is acted upon (e.g., "she threatened ...

  17. First-Person Pronouns in Academic Writing

    When Not to Use "I" in Academic Writing. It is true that using too many first-person pronouns in a college paper will look bad. This is because it looks like you're expressing an opinion rather than discussing facts. For instance: I think the Watergate scandal had a big effect on American politics. The "I think" here is unnecessary.

  18. Academic essay writing in the first person: a guide for ...

    Academic essay writing in the first person: a guide for undergraduates Nurs Stand. 1999 Jul;13(44):38-40. doi: 10.7748/ns1999.07.13.44.1 .c2644 ... Conal Hamill aims to contribute to the on-going debate about the appropriate use of first person writing in academic nursing assignments and provide guidance for nursing undergraduates. MeSH terms ...

  19. First-person pronouns

    First-Person Pronouns. Use first-person pronouns in APA Style to describe your work as well as your personal reactions. If you are writing a paper by yourself, use the pronoun "I" to refer to yourself. If you are writing a paper with coauthors, use the pronoun "we" to refer yourself and your coauthors together.

  20. Academic essay writing in the first person: A

    Hamil C (1999) Academic essay writing in the first person: a guide for undergraduate. Nursing Standard, 13,44,38-40. Date of acceptance: May 14 1999. FOR SOME time now I have been concerned with the writing gymnastics that many undergraduates go through when attempting to write an academic essay as part of course requirements.

  21. Academic essay writing in the first person: a guide for undergraduates

    Academic essay writing in the first person: a guide for undergraduates. Conal Hamill. Published in Nursing Standard 21 July 1999. Education, Medicine. In this article, Conal Hamill aims to contribute to the on-going debate about the appropriate use of first person writing in academic nursing assignments and provide guidance for nursing….

  22. Academic essay writing in the first person: a guide for ...

    In this article, Conal Hamill aims to contribute to the on-going debate about the appropriate use of first person writing in academic nursing assignments and provide guidance for nursing undergraduates. Nursing Standard . 13, 44, 1-2. doi: 10.7748/ns1999.07.13.44.1.c2644. Keywords :