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Using I and You

When writing, students often become stumped about the appropriate use of personal pronouns such as “I” and “you.” Some professors are dead set against such words, but others are more lenient or may even encourage them, depending on the assignment. As with any good thing, however, too many personal pronouns in a paper can become repetitious and boring.

In this Resource for Writers, we will look at examples of proper and improper use of personal pronouns.

When is it appropriate to use “I” in a paper?

The word “I” is necessary in certain assignments such as narratives and some reaction papers. When personal feelings or opinions are to be included in a paper, using “I” is the easiest and most effective way to express them. Below are some topics that would warrant the use of “I” along with others that would not.

“I” works well with these topics:

  • My Transition From High School to College
  • Family Traditions That I Treasure
  • The Greatest Challenge I Ever Faced
  • My Strengths as a Writer
  • How the War on Terrorism has Affected Me

Avoid “I” with topics such as these:

  • Case Studies or other nonpersonal writings
  • Biases in Standardized Testing
  • The History of Renaissance Women
  • Women’s Role Under Taliban Rule
  • What Constitutes an Effective School

When writing papers where a thesis must be stated and conclusions drawn, writers often feel trapped into using “I,” in spite of contrary instructions. In these cases, certain strategies are helpful, such as using “one,” “some,” or “many,” as shown below. In this way, a writer can state his or her thesis or opinion without using “I.”

One might conclude that the SAT exam, while seemingly biased, is indeed a better alternative to judging a person based on his or her race, religious beliefs, or socioeconomic status. According to George Hughes, “Blatant discrimination existed in the college admissions process even through the seventies and eighties” (2).

In this example, “one” could easily be replaced by “some” or “many.” By using any one of these words, the writer eliminates the need for “I” and shows that the opinion he has stated is also supported by at least one other person. This support is always useful when writing a research paper, and this format offers a smooth transition into another person’s words.

When is it appropriate to use “You” in a paper?

Generally, referring to the reader within the context of your paper is not recommended. Including “you” in an assignment is often unnecessary. Below are two examples to clarify these points; the first shows a case of unnecessary usage, while the second is a revised version.

Example 1

As I walked into the room that day, you wouldn’t believe the mess I found! My preschool-aged cousins had done more damage to my bedroom in half an hour than I would ever have thought possible. You should have seen the way my shelves had been emptied of all my books, knickknacks, and childhood stuffed animals. My closet looked worse than the city dump, and my sheets and comforter were nowhere to be found among the debris on the floor. I was devastated. My mother and aunt insisted that it was my fault for leaving my door open because they had warned me about the high-strung nature of preschool children. That was the day that I decided to change my major from Early Childhood Education to Secondary English Education. Trust me, you would have done the same thing.

This paragraph does not sound terrible with the few uses of “you,” but they are unnecessary. As you will see below, the revision sounds a bit more clean-cut and less informal.

Example 2

As I walked into the room that day, I found my room to be in an absolute shambles! My preschool-aged cousins had done more damage to my bedroom in half an hour than I would ever have thought possible. My shelves had been emptied of all of my books, knickknacks, and childhood stuffed animals, my closet looked worse than the city dump, and my sheets and comforter were nowhere to be found among the debris on the floor. I was devastated. My mother and aunt insisted that it was my fault for leaving my door open because they had warned me about the high-strung nature of preschool children. That was the day that I decided to change my major from Early Childhood Education to Secondary English Education. It was really the only logical thing to do after that disastrous revelation.

Although the meaning has not been changed, the paragraph seems more direct because it no longer refers to the reader. Some people may feel that an intimate connection to the reader is lost by removing the word “you” from the paper, but something else is actually gained in this process. By removing the informal “you” from the paragraph, it sound less like the author is trying to persuade the reader and more like he or she is writing an account for the reader to judge on his or her own.

by Christina Crnkovic 

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