General Guidelines for Using the First Person

Understand when the first person is preferable to second or third person.

“Do not use the first person” is perhaps the most unfortunate writing myth that handicaps inexperienced writers. After all, how can we think without using our experience? Why must we drive a stake through our cerebral cortex before writing? Can we logically assume that we are more objective thinkers when we avoid the first person?

Why Avoid the First Person?

In the bulk of writing that you do as a student, readers care more about the information and ideas that you are reviewing than about you as an author. This does not mean that your language should lack an occasional personal anecdote. Remember that your instructors are people too: Like everyone else, they appreciate the human drama, the compassionate moment, the personal involvement.

When you remove all personal references from your writing, you can suck the life out of your prose. What sort of persona, for example, do you infer when you read the following passage from an essay that appeared in the Evaluation and Program Planning?

While some evaluation specialists disagree (Scriven, 1973) this writer believes that a well‑planned evaluation effort begins with clearly established goals. Sometimes goals are established by the program staff along with the evaluator well in advance of the program and the planned evaluation. This is the “best case” scenario (Posavac & Clarey, 1984). However, in the case of the Very Special Arts Evaluation, programs were already in operation in many locales and had been running for a long period of time. Therefore, it was not possible for the author to be involved in the goal establishment process. In fact, one of the first questions this evaluator posed to Very Special Arts focused on the goals and criteria that were to be the benchmark against which Very Special Arts programs were to be evaluated.

Can you see that the author’s prose could be more vigorous, less pedantic, if he used the first person? Let’s take a look at the following revision of the above paragraph, which uses the first person.

While I would have preferred to establish goals for evaluating the Very Special Arts programs before their inception, I was unable to do so because the programs had been operating for three years in ten cities. By meeting with personnel from the arts programs, however, I was able to develop significant goals and criteria: etc.

Should You Always Use the First Person?

While the first person is acceptable in many circumstances, there are some communication situations where writers should not use the first person. Clearly, it is true that use of the first person can be obtrusive.

For example, writers of instructions and resumes typically avoid the first person. Reporters of newspapers and magazines may be prohibited from using the first person, unless their assignment falls within the purview of the editorial section. Thus, you must ground your decision of whether to use the first person in your analysis of your communication situation.

[ The First Person | Using First Person in an Academic Essay: When is It Okay? ]