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When can I use first person?


Many students are taught that the first person (“I,” “me,” & “we”) should never be used in academic writing. In fact, academics use it all the time to clarify points, simplify writing, and show perspective. Here’s how.

Don’t use first person if…

  1. it creates personal bias. Don’t say, “I can’t believe how much Americans buy.” Do say: “Americans tend to buy more than other nationalities.”
  2. you’re using it as proof or evidence. Academic writing isn’t about the author’s experiential expertise. Don’t say, “I grew up in Alaska, so I know all about…” Do say: “Based on research conducted in Alaska, it is clear….”
  3. it is already implied in the writing. Ex: “I think Americans may have forgotten the true meaning of Christmas.”

Do use first person when…

  1. you are directly responding to another scholar’s ideas ( ex. “My interpretation, however, conflicts with Smith’s assertion because…”)
  2. you are clarifying a point or trying to avoid misinterpretation (“Note that I am not claiming all women…”)
  3. you are acknowledging how your perspective was shaped (“My thoughts on this subject are clearly influenced by my gender…”)
  4. it simplifies wording (“the relationship between corporation and universities consumerism and religion is suggested to be..” vs. “I suggest that corporations and universities…”)

2 examples of academics using first person

1. From Millette Shamir, “Foreigners Within & Innocents Abroad: Discourse of the Self in the Internationalization of American Studies” (2004). In this excerpt, Shamir is clarifying how his ideas differ from a previous scholar in order to avoid misinterpretation.

I should make clear that I have absolutely no practical objections to Mitchell’s diagnosis. From the perspective of an Israeli leftist, his observation about a Zionist idolatry of land appears both superfluous and intriguing, no so much for what it articulates about the Israeli other, but for what it assumes about the American self. What I wish to suggest, in other words, is that Mitchell’s observation about how, out of the seemingly innocent national landscape, Israelis forged the very idol which they historically sought to annihilate, can turn back on the innocent critic abroad and his own particular idols, idols that may prove to be quite voracious in their own right.

2. From Jose David Saldivar’s “Nuestra America’s Borders: Remapping American Cultural Studies” (2005). In this excerpt, Saldivar is acknowledging his own background to avoid historical/cultural bias.

Culturally, I write these days as a teacher and avid reader and consumer of U.S.-Mexico border texts, soundings, and visual cultural performance. Like many U.S. Latino/a intellectuals, I have lived both in the North and in the South and the South in the North as Ruben Martinez once dizzyingly and aptly put it. While I now find myself located in what some hundred and fifty years ago was called the northern frontier of Alta California, I spent the first half of my life at the mouth of the Rio Grande in South Texas. The purpose of these brief personal remarks in not to demonstrate a Manichean clash of identities and affiliations, but rather to begin mapping out the phantasmatics of Nuestra America’s borders at our own complex fin de siglo.

Further reading