It’s often believed that it’s wrong to use “I” in academic writing, and that is one of the reasons why academic writing gets a bad name.
The problem with “I” is it’s like a symptom of a worse problem. It isn’t the “I” that’s the problem, it’s what caused it. Imagine you keep finding black mold in your bathroom. You can clean it off and wait for it to grow again or you could think “wait a minute, maybe I should find out what’s causing this just in case something else is going on.”
It’s not always wrong to use “I”
Using I in itself is not “bad” if it’s justified. It’s all a matter of style. If you are writing a polemical piece (a personal argument) then you really should be using I to ensure that people don’t think you’re making claims for the rest of the world.
E.g. “I think all designers should wear black turtlenecks and grow goatee beards” is a better way of making a personal argument than “all designers should wear black turtlenecks and grow goatee beards”. What is “unacademic” is if you then fail to make a good case for why you believe that. Just saying it doesn’t make it right.
So rule number one about using “I” – it often signals a poorly made argument. And it is often a lazy way of making an argument without making a good case for it. That’s why using “I” is often “unacademic”.
Rule number two relates to another instance when it’s a symptom of a worse problem.
Imagine you are reporting on some research that you did and what you discovered. You interview someone (let’s call her Maria) and she tells you that in her experience, she has met more goatee-bearded designers than clean-shaven ones.
Which of these is better:
- “I was told by Maria that most designers she met had goatee beards”
- “Maria told me that most designers she met had goatee beards”
- “Most designers that Maria met had goatee beards”
- “Most designers have goatee beards, according to Maria”
It’s the last one. Why? Because the designers with the goatee beards are the subject of the sentence. When you use “I” or “me” you’re making yourself the subject of the sentence, and you shouldn’t be.
(Why is the third version wrong? Well, because I’m making it clear that this is Maria’s experience or opinion, not a fact, and I’m placing Maria at the end of the sentence to focus on designers and their facial hair. It’s a stylistic thing and I only mention it to help you see what is meant by the “subject” of the sentence.)
So here, rule number two isn’t about being poor “academic” writing, just poor writing.
There now follows some grammar. Sorry about that.
It’s important to know the difference between the “object” of a sentence and its “subject”.
The subject of a sentence is the thing that is doing something. (The verb)
The object of the sentence is the thing that is having something done to it.
Get these in the wrong order and you have a weaker sentence than you want. For example, compare these two sentences:
- The man was bitten by the dog
- The dog bit the man
Which is a better sentence? The answer is the second because it is written in the “active voice” - the verb is more immediate. In the first sentence the subject of the sentence (the man), isn’t doing the verb (the biting.) We call that the “passive voice”. In the second sentence the subject is the dog, and the dog is doing the verb, i.e. biting the man.
The problem with the passive voice is that we tend to write in that style quite naturally in English. I’m sure there’s a cultural reason for it. But it isn’t good style for various reasons, one of which is that it distances us from the action and what’s important. In an episode of House, a patient may turn up with a bite wound. “What happened to him?” says House. “He was bitten by a dog”, says Chase. Cue 40 minutes of dead ends and blind alleys while they try to figure out why the patient is frothing at the mouth. If Chase had said “a dog bit him” maybe the next question would have been “did the dog have rabies?” Admittedly it would make for a very short episode, but will no one think of the poor patient?
Apart from anything else it uses up far more words – in that dog/man example, seven words compared with five. When you’re writing to a word limit, you need to keep your word usage down (believe it or not, despite the most common fear of writing a dissertation, getting to 7,000 words is not the problem, it’s getting down to 7,000!
Using “I” or “me” is often a sign that you’re using the passive voice instead of the active voice. You’re swapping the subject and the object round. “Maria told me that…” or “I was told by Maria that” is extraneous language. Who cares about you and Maria? We want to know about the hairy designers! We know it’s you finding this stuff out, your name’s on the front of the dissertation!
Incidentally, if all this is too much for you, word processors such as Microsoft Word have a grammar checking tool which will alert you to passive voice. So there’s really no excuse…
The grammar police. Just doing their duty…
So that’s why it’s “wrong” to use “I” or “me” – it’s often (but not always) a symptom of a weak, passive writing style, not an attempt to diminish your role. That’s why it’s okay to say:
- I shot the sheriff, but I did not shoot the deputy
- The sheriff was shot by me, but the deputy wasn’t.
However in those circumstances I’d advise keeping quiet until you speak to a good lawyer.