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Author Topic: The frequent use of “I” isn’t necessarily an awful thing  (Read 356 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: January 16, 2017, 05:53:07 PM »

Sometime on your way to learning how to write in English, one or more of your teachers must have implanted in your mind that the frequent use of the first-person “I” in writing isn’t good and must be avoided at all costs. Having had one such teacher myself in high school, it took me so many years to discover that this caveat against “I” was actually a very serious stumbling block to my learning how to write well.

I therefore strongly empathized with Justine A., a member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum, when he related to me recently his own encounter with that caveat:

“I approached my teacher in English—a journalism teacher—to check my essay. The subject of that essay is ‘How I can make peace come alive in my world.’ The teacher put this note on the second draft of my essay: ‘If ever possible, avoid using the (redundancy) “I” same word in a sentence or paragraph.’

“I met her the following morning and she told me to avoid the overuse of ‘I’ and to use so-called ‘imagery’ instead so that although I’m not using the word ‘I,’ it will be clear that I’m the one speaking in the essay. The idea of using ‘imagery’ is something perplexing and difficult to me. Are there ways by which you can avoid the use of many ‘I’s’ when writing an essay?”

Here’s my reply to Justine:

Your English teacher gave you a very tall order. It’s true that avoiding the overuse of “I” is actually a very sensible, well-meaning suggestion when addressed to professional writers and journalists, for the use of too many “I’s” in an essay or feature story indeed can make for a very unpleasant reading experience. But I must say that asking beginning writers to blindly follow the minimal-“I” prescription often results in English that seems to be walking on tenterhooks—strained, contrived, unnatural-sounding.

In job application letters, for instance, people brainwashed by their schoolteachers to practice total abstinence from “I” usually come up with stilted, legal-sounding constructions like “The undersigned has the honor to apply for the position you advertised.” I would rather encourage students to use “I” freely in their writing; this way, I believe, they can more easily develop their skills for self-expression as they mature and get exposed to more examples of professional writing.  

Regarding your teacher’s suggestion to use “imagery” as a means for avoiding the repetitive use of “I,” I frankly don’t know what she means by that. In fact, I know of only one sensible way of reducing the usage of “I” in first-person writing—to combine sentences or clauses that individually use it. Take this statement, for instance: “I love to read. I love to write. And I love to listen to music.” By combining these three sentences into one, we need to use “I” only once: “I love to read, write, and listen to music.”

But we must beware that there are some rhetorical forms where clause combining to reduce “I” usage can be counterproductive or even destructive. Take this famous tricolon of Julius Caesar: “I came, I saw, I conquered.” (A tricolon is a sentence with three clearly defined parts of equal length, usually independent clauses, of increasing power.) The combined version, “I came, saw, and conquered” is insipid, all of the drama and power of the original having been squeezed out of it.

My point in all this is that the frequent use of “I” in essays and other forms of exposition isn’t always undesirable. To use “I” more than twice in a sentence or paragraph isn’t really such an awful thing, so I think it isn’t wise for teachers to shun and practically ban “I” from student compositions. Ultimately, in fact, whether to use “I” or not will largely depend on the writer’s intent and style.

This essay, 709th in the series, first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in  The Manila Times in its September 25, 2010 issue © 2010 by Manila Times Publishing. All rights reserved.

1. "Beyond Life" by James Branch Cabell
2. "A Word for Autumn' by A. A. Milne
3. "Bed-Books and Night Lights" by H. M. Tomlinson

« Last Edit: January 16, 2018, 07:04:46 AM by Joe Carillo » Logged

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