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  • katymulvaney

Lies Teachers Told You About First Person Pronouns

Updated: Oct 12, 2023

I did not mean for this to be a series, but now I realize it will be at least one more entry on Lies Teachers Told You About Thesis Statements. I'm going to do the abbreviated version of explaining that, yes, teachers lie to children all the time because I have already written the exhaustive version in Lies Teachers Told You About Paragraph Structure.

Teachers tell students to picture an atom with a nucleus like a planet and electrons racing around it like moons, even though they know all about how wildly and wonderfully electrons actually behave (see the post above for Stoppard's "atoms as cathedrals" speech).

They tell you that the earth revolves around the sun and the moon around the earth, but they don't get into how the moon also pulls on the earth and the sun is barreling through space so we're really all just like the tail of a comet spinning behind the projectile star we cling to...

Although I have some pity, because apparently this video isn't actually quite accurate when you really get into it. It's harder to explain the real truth and even to find it sometimes.

Meanwhile, teachers need for you to understand the basics and then hope that you'll learn the complicated interplay of quarks and quasars later.

The more I teach, the more I think that it's a mistake. The video above isn't full of complex equations elementary school students don't have the math to unravel. It's a principle almost as simple as the classic model, just more interesting. There are a lot of unanswered questions -- like "Where is the sun going?" -- that teachers can expect, but isn't that...well...exactly what we want? Engaged, curious students? Perhaps students willing to jump into the deep end in order to find out about quarks and quasars?

So do we tell simplified rules about writing that we know are lies? Do we really think middle-schoolers or even high-schoolers can't learn the more complicated issues with passive voice and inappropriate self-insert or "I think" statements?

No, we have to tell them a big, ridiculous, obvious lie like

Never Use First Person Pronouns in Formal Essays!

Seriously, what are we even talking about? This one feels particularly egregious because we give them examples of good, lauded writing all the time that uses first person pronouns!

They know we are lying. First person pronouns are NOT banned in "formal essays."

Teachers have even told kids to avoid first person pronouns in personal essays -- essays for college admissions!

We sound stupid. We sound untrustworthy. We sound unserious and out of touch -- not just out of touch with "youth culture" but with our own lessons.

I'm not coming (today) for all the lies we tell students about writing. But this one? A blanket ban on all first person pronouns? It's got to go!

The Reason We Lie

Look I GET it. Sometimes it's just simpler to teach them not to do something than help them learn the intuitive and subjective rules for when it is and isn't okay to use first person pronouns in formal writing.

This rule tackles two of the most frustrating and common (at least in my experience) issues young writers have. By doing a blanket ban, it looks like we've cured students of two bad habits. The problem is, we probably haven't. We just hid them under a rug, and the fundamental writing lesson has not been learned.

Reason #1: Don't Narrate Writing Your Paper

I went back through what I've written so far and highlighted all the times I "narrated" writing this blog post in yellow.

I highlighted a fair amount. So I get the impulse. Writing this blog post was a whole ordeal for me -- and it's completely voluntary on my end! I could have stopped at any point, and I still felt like I wanted a little acknowledgement for the effort I'm putting in. I wanted you to know, in short, that I did a lot of self-reflection before sitting down to spell out my conclusion.

But, um, why? Did that change anything about how you responded to my material?

Maybe knowing that I've written about Teachers Lying before makes me seem more credible. Then again, maybe I just wanted to link to my other essay and get more clicks. My motives are clearly suspect.

The other main example was my excuse to write a short version of other Lies Teachers Tell...and why? Isn't a brief example...better?

That leaves my only justification for telling you about my writing process that

I didn't know how else to start...

This is the most frustrating way that "narrating your paper" appears. Instead of telling me what conclusion you came to and then using the paper to defend that argument, you spend half the paper telling me that you did the homework.

"When I read the assigned article, I thought..."

"When I first sat down to read The Great Gatsby, I didn't know what to expect."

"I had never heard of this topic before our class discussion, and I was surprised by..."

I get it. You start writing your paper where the process started for you. The thing is...I kind of don't care. Your experience reading Jane Eyre is probably not unique, and it's neither an exciting, engaging start NOR a clear indication of where you're going with this paper.

Think of it from my perspective as the teacher reading 40-50 papers, usually on the same piece of writing. All of you read the book, right? (....right???) So starting with how you read the piece tells me...nothing. It's just wasted words.

Worst case scenario? It looks like you're trying to inflate the length of your paper. We aren't fooled.

This way it looks longer!

That's what your teachers are likely to assume you're doing, especially if you keep it up throughout the paper.

"Then I got to the part where Rochester reveals he has a wife stashed in the attic and I was like WHAT?" (scrollover for spoiler text)

"But then, when I read the other article, I started to think that..."

"The other article I read was written by John Doe. He says..."

Contrary to popular student belief, teachers don't make page minimums because we are evil sadists who want to torture you. We are giving you the number of pages that we think, realistically, almost every student will need in order to fulfill all of the paper's requirements.

I've had the occasional student who is much better than most others (very much including myself) at writing concisely. I'm thrilled when they accomplish all of the writing goals in a shorter amount of words. At one college, I got into the habit of answering students who wanted to know the minimum number of pages they needed to write with, "The shortest paper that ever got an A for this assignment was X pages long. Most people take Y."

So when I say we aren't fooled by all the "tricks" that make a paper seem longer, I don't just mean that we aren't fooled by messing with the margins or extra-large fonts or 2.5 spacing. (Those do insult our intelligence a little. Not a good idea when we're grading.) I mean that we are telling you how much content we want to see in your papers. We know some students will need more space than others. That's why we gave you a page range.

Narrating your paper writing process adds zero content to your paper.

But...don't I need to prove that I did the reading?

No, Perd Hapley, you don't. Not by just...saying so.

Believe me. If you pull a useful quote that's relevant to your argument, I'll believe that you read the entire article/novel/play/etc. Chances are that you'll need to mention other relevant details about the author and the plot/argument in order to set up that quote too.

It's really really obvious when students haven't done the reading. You give yourself away in a host of ways that no, I will not list for you. Because I don't have three straight days to devote to the task.

Please don't worry about "proving" you did the reading. A sentence saying that you did the reading...doesn't really sound that convincing anyway.

BUT there is an exception to Rule #1.

Exception to Rule #1: The Story of How I Changed My Mind

There CAN be a reason to narrate. If the process of researching the topic made you change your opinion (significantly)...that can add to the paper.

Even then, really think if you are telling me about your changed mind for brownie points/to take up space...or if you are using it as a persuasive tactic.

Because that's what stories of changing your mind are in great writing -- tactics that show a reader on the opposite side that you get their current position, in fact, it used to be yours! It also signals to people who already believe your side of the issue that your article might contain some lovely hints about what really convinces people to flip sides. You're reassuring your opponents that you won't come them stupid and/or evil, and you're promising to break down the counter argument along the way of making YOUR point.

But if you're not doing BOTH of those last two things in the paper...well, then you're just filling space.

Also, HOW different is your opinion, really? Did you have a simple, reductive view before? And now you have a nuanced one? That...strays pretty close to calling the other side stupid -- which wins you no friends or converts. So...proceed with caution.

Rule #2 -- Don't Use "I Think" To Get Out of

Justifying Your Opinion

Maybe (hopefully) you don't mean it this way, but I've read a lot of papers by students who seem to think that adding "I think" to a statement made it immune from being wrong.

This tendency takes a lot of different forms. In practice, they look much the same (a constant peppering of "I think" or "I agree" added to sentences as if, again, trying to make the page count artificially longer). It's most absurd when it appears before an objective fact ("I think Jane Eyre is a long book") or a very very broad opinion ("I believe it is a good book").

I can't be WRONG in my OPINION about LITERATURE!

This tendency can show up in other forms of writing, but it is overwhelming the most common in writing about literature. I've had students say with their full voice that they can't be wrong in their opinion of literature.

You can.

No one can tell you that you're wrong to like or dislike a book -- or at least they shouldn't. They can't tell you that you're an idiot to prefer Jane Austen to Charlotte Bronte. But if they tell you that Charlotte's Web is a romantic comedy...they're wrong. There's no other word for it.

Worse, if you've been assigned to write a formal essay about literature, then the teacher is not looking for a broad opinion or your take on a purely subjective question. We want you to interpret some part of the story and make a defend-able claim about the author's intent.

"Jane Austen's acerbic wit is more fun than Charlotte Bronte's effusive prose" is not a good claim for a paper. You can't prove "better." You're not interpreting the two works in a defend-able way. You could give me an example of Austen's wit and Bronte's emotional language, but you can't show me that one is better than the other.

You could claim that "Charlotte's Web and Animal Farm share more in philosophy and worldview than their initial tone and plot might make you think." You could compare the rhetoric of the animals of Animal Farm in early parts of the book to the complacent animals of Charlotte's Web who are radicalized in at least the small way of saving Wilbur...even at great cost to their leader...but fail to think in terms of overthrowing the system, as in Animal Farm.

I apologize for that example. It occurred to me and then quickly got away from me. BUT! I could pull examples from both texts to defend it. You might not THINK the same thing as I do at the end of the paper, but it is a defend-able idea.

"Good" is not defend-able. "Better" is not. Even "more meaningful" is not.

If you're trying to use "I think" to get out of having to justify your idea (in literature or beyond) might need a more defend-able claim.

It's my political/religious beliefs, so you saying they're wrong is RUDE AND PREJUDICED!!

So...let's get a few things out of the way here.

  • You are not being discriminated against just because someone disagrees with you.

  • No politician, writer, activist, or pundit is an unimpeachable source that it is insulting to question.

  • Being asked to defend your political beliefs is not the same as being told that they are wrong (exception for "political beliefs" that want to erase certain kinds of people from existence -- those people are not entitled to the courtesy of argument).

I'm sure I missed some of the common misconceptions here, but let's pause over this last one. This is a common teaching tactic: asking you to justify your knee-jerk reactions or deeply held beliefs to explore the underlying evidence and principles that undergird them. The method tends to work out better in class, because I can clarify in the moment that I'm not saying you're necessarily wrong...I just want to know what you base that belief on.

Again, you're trying to skip the part where you SHOW me WHY you believe what you believe. And no, in persuasive writing, "because that's what I believe is right" is not enough. Even "it's the moral choice" or "those are my values" is not enough for an argument.

If it feels too vulnerable or strange for you to explain why YOU believe something, then perhaps it would help to model someone who does not share your beliefs and try to think what might convince THEM to agree with you. In fact, that's how persuasion usually works.

Of course, that's a terribly hard thing to do. It requires a heady mixture of intelligence and empathy extended to people who annoy or even offend you. It's hard work both emotionally and mentally. It's a worthy undertaking, not a shortcut.

Some students use "I think" as a shortcut or even as a weapon to wield off being graded down for skipping over the main effort of the assignment.

A few of these arguments with students in a row, and I'm ready to ban first person pronouns myself. But I resist! will you know what I THINK if I don't label it???

In contrast to the students above, I have infinite patience for students with this issue. Although, frankly, infinite patience is rarely needed. This tendency in students comes from a deep insecurity or at least uncertainty. If I could inject them with a little confidence, it would solve the underlying issue and all it would take is some minor effort to break the habit.

Sometimes these students just need permission to state their opinions without caveats. With, as the internet says, the confidence of a mediocre white man.

It's the difference between "Despite their surface-level differences, Animal Farm actually shares much of its structure and political philosophy with the beloved children's classic Charlotte's Web" and "I think there are actually a lot of surprising similarities between Animal Farm and Charlotte's Web."

Also, apparently I have a lot of feelings about Charlotte's Web. I've written about it before in a deeply weird way.

For the students with this bad habit, the thinking is definitely there. There's no attempt to skip giving evidence -- in fact, it's often laid on VERY thick because, after all, if you're not confident in your voice, you center the voices of others. You bring in as many experts as possible. Often, this student goes too far in the other direction and the writer lets their own voice start to disappear -- but this isn't necessary! You can make it clear what YOUR OPINION is without SAYING so constantly.

There's a bit of an art to it, I admit, but it's one of the most learn-able tactics in writing instruction. They Say I Say devotes Chapter 5 to the mindset and tactics and they say it better than I ever could.

I agree...and that's all I have to say about that!

This is the big thing we're afraid of as your teachers, and the thing that most commonly underlies this problem.

It's also the hardest for me to approach as a writing coach, because there are all kinds of problems that can underlie the issue.

Have you not done the reading and the work that would allow you to have a more nuanced/forceful/detailed opinion? Are you not confident that you are "worthy" of weighing in on this issue? Is part of you sure that you're wrong, or at least on the opposite side of the issue from your professor?

I can't promise that every teacher works as hard as I do to separate my feelings about your opinion from my analysis of your writing (and it's not always completely irrelevant if you're using, say, problematic sources). But it is a basic tenant of a good teaching to separate writing skill from the opinion itself.

And saying "it's just my opinion!" doesn't mollify the teacher who would penalize you all that much.

Whatever the case actually is, this tendency reads as if you have given the subject too little thought. Perhaps no thought beyond "I read one thing, and that sounded pretty good." I'm not saying that that is all you did, but that's all you put on the page. That's what it looks like, from the reader's perspective.

As a reader, I can't help really have nothing to add? There's not another example you could bring in? Or ANY other argument for the position? No other perspective you could add or audience you could tailor the argument for? The piece you're quoting got every single piece exactly right and left no other evidence undiscussed? It's the final word on the subject and no one else need bother?

Think hard about what YOU have to ADD to the argument. WHY you agree, what it MEANS that the author is so right. Where ELSE this argument could apply.

If I have to explain to you why "And I disagree" is not enough of a counterargument, then I'm not sure I can help you.

To Be Clear...

To clarify this rule a bit, there are all kinds of justifications for the occasional use of "I think/agree/disagree" that is followed up by an explanation and argument of your own. It's rarely the strongest move, but there are cases where it just makes sense or allows for a smoother transition. It's the overuse and the reliance on "I think" that makes for a bad habit.

Sparing use can work. It can sound natural and help make your specific argument crystal clear.

For example, "While I agree that both Animal Farm and Charlotte's Web deal with the uncomfortable relationship between farmers and their animals, I cannot get behind the argument that the barn animals of Charlotte's Web have any of the class consciousness that fuels Animal Farm. In fact, I see more parallels with the even more twee book Click, Clack, Moo, which offers young children the non-violent version of addressing inequalities between farmers and their unpaid animals."

A better rule of thumb is to reserve your "I think" statements for your core argument, and ideally only in the cases where you are directly challenging a specific viewpoint/other writer. That's not a perfect rule, of course. But your actual opinion should take up overwhelmingly more space than your "I think" statements. You'd be surprised how out of balance this can be in student papers.

Exception to Rule #2 -- Deferring To The Impacted Group

The one time that that out-of-balance feeling is preferable is when you are discussing an issue in which certain voices have been historically silenced. We saw this happen with the reaction to the movie Oppenheimer this summer. If I wanted to include in my review of that movie the critique that the movie ignores the severe and deadly cost to the Navajo nation of the testing facility, then I should uplift native voices largely without my own comments. Not because I have nothing to say about it, but because people like me have been chiming in and being uplifted plenty. The voices we have historically not wanted to listen to don't need me adding my running commentary alongside theirs.

Be very very careful about choosing paper topics that fall into this category, however. If you don't feel qualified to talk about any aspect of the topic...why did you choose it?

Final Takeaways

First person pronoun use can be a thorny issue to teach. As often happens when that's the case, English and Writing teachers tend to give students a simple rule to follow "to get them started." It's part of the work of education and growing up to learn when to break the simple rules you've been told and when they are, in fact, saving you from yourself.

However, this rule strikes me as particularly troublesome because I tend to see these same underlying problems even in papers that are terrified of using first person pronouns. I get impersonal constructions that narrate the paper "If one reads carefully, one can see" or an absolute refusal to explain the logic behind your agreement/ without even a statement telling me what side you're on.

I'm always suspicious of anything that discourages us from addressing the real problem.

So use first person pronouns!

If you get feedback not to use first person pronouns, ask yourself if the problem is that you are using them too much or in one of the ways listed above. Then ask yourself:

  • Is your voice shining through over the course of the paper? Or have you presented your opinion all in one clump at the end?

  • Are you trying to make the paper seem longer by narrating the writing process?

  • Could you just skip straight to the counterargument, rather than saying "I disagree" first?

  • How many of the words in this paper are not your own opinion? Or things you agree with? Why do you feel the need to tell us that THIS is your line in the stand so specifically?

  • Have you been saying a lot of things you don't believe in the paper until now? No? Then why specify now?

  • Is there enough CONTENT in your paper?

So often, an abundance of first person pronouns reads like you don't have enough to say. Ironic, I know. But if you have to filter everything through a self-conscious "it's just MY opinion though" then, well, have you thought about this enough that we should trust your opinion? Have you done the research? Could you show me THAT?

Or if you keep telling me how you came to your final conclusion when I'm not even sure what this opinion is sounds like you've done the bare minimum of research and are worried that I won't think it's enough. But your tactic just makes me more suspicious that you haven't thought about this enough. Why would you want to sound like you only read two articles and now think you're an expert?

So the real question is not "Should I use first person pronouns?" or even "Is my teacher right about this particular use of first person pronouns?"

The vast majority of the time the "I" is not the actual problem in the sentence.

Ask yourself instead: "Do I have enough content to back up my opinions?"

If you do, then chances are the occasionally "I think that" won't bother anyone (much).


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