Are You a Character in Your Essay?

A Personal Reflection by Your Instructor


At a recent English Department meeting, several instructors commented that they would never ever allow students to use first person (I, me, my, we, us, our) in an essay. You have probably noticed that I do not enforce that rule. I like to begin writing courses with some personal writing because that sort of writing is easier for most students—if I ask you to begin by analyzing the causes of college student frustration with writing, you might freeze up and give me a lot of theoretical gas, but if I ask how you became the writer that you are today, that’s a lot less likely.

Enforcing that non-first-person rule produces a lot of writing that feels like it is wearing rubber gloves (and doesn’t really communicate).

One is a parent of two beautiful girls, Terra, a 17 year old typical teenager, and Alexus, an 18 month old ornery toddler. One feel that one is a good father, far better than how one’s mother raised one.

This style of writing was not native to this student, so he got very tangled up as he concluded:

As one can see, some people should never become a parent or try to. Although one was hurt, I harbored more anger than hurt towards my mother.

Who is “one”—the author of the paper or the reader? I asked the student why he wrote it this way, and he said that he knew it was an absolute rule that first person was always forbidden in essays.

Where this rule comes from

This usage does feel like British writing from the 1930s (and to tell the truth, it is more common in England than in the USA today). In our country, it has a literary and pretentious feeling, but there are good reasons some instructors push it.

A more complete discussion of this issue

Follow this link to UNC’s handout page Should I use “I”? for a very complete discussion of first and second person usage in academic writing.

One point the UNC handout makes is that academic writing is not a “one size fits all” project. I frequently quote writing instructor Jack Rawlins, who said that the core questions writers must answer are what are you trying to do and who are you trying to do it to?

This means that if you are writing for an instructor who is very convinced that first person must never appear in academic essays, you would be wise to follow that advice (if you want a decent grade).

One more thing—contractions

As I said above, American high school kid writing (and, indeed, most American writing now) is extremely informal and intimate. It’s best bud sharing private thoughts with best bud. Contractions reduce the social distance between the writer and the reader and tend to feel informal and breezy. That is not always the right feeling for formal academic essays (or job applications or letters to your employer). You would be wise to eliminate them, and many instructors will mark your paper down if you use them. As a bonus, if you use full spelling, many homophone pairs that make you crazy (your/you’re or they’re/there, for example) will stop causing trouble.

Why I wrote this piece in first person

As I said at the top, this is a personal reflection and discusses part of my philosophy of writing and teaching. I intended this to be instructions aimed specifically at you, the college freshman writer, so first and second person pronouns were appropriate. The contractions seemed to fit the more informal style and aim of the paper. If I had been writing a piece on “Personal Pronouns and Vertical Register in Undergraduate Essays” for an academic journal, this piece would have been quite different.


The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by Ashland University.
Revised 8/20/19 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: callen@ashland.edu.