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.”
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.
Published 25 July 2017