Opinion | In this essay I argue that your teachers were wrong

Opinion by Hannah H. Kim
March 18, 2021, 9:32 p.m.

Most likely, your middle school or high school English teacher taught you that the first-person pronoun “I” has no place in academic writing. It seems widely understood that “I” isn’t used in formal prose. It’s as if “I” sneaks into written discourse only as a hangover from colloquial spoken language.

I understand why students are taught to avoid writing with “I.” The fact vs. opinion distinction is taught in elementary school, and “opinion” is sometimes explained as “I-statements.” It’s easy to lump “I” with “opinion.” “San Mateo is twenty miles south of San Francisco” is fact; “I think white chocolate is nasty” is opinion. Subjective expressions, personal beliefs, the kinds of thoughts we have a “right” to hold — these all get swept into “opinion,” and they’re often presented as “I”-statements.

So the issue runs deeper than whether “I” belongs to academic writing; the hesitation over using the first-person pronoun stems from the way we think about the fact vs. opinion distinction, and both tendencies are in need of an overhaul. “I” can be used to report both fact and opinion, and opinions can be wrong, too. 

I observe the unwelcome consequences of earlier lessons in my undergraduate philosophy classes. “I think Plato is just being an elitist,” a student will say. Sometimes both first-person pronouns show up: “I don’t think Mengzi’s thought experiment is convincing, but that’s just me.” Implicit in these formulations, especially when delivered with the emphasis on the first-person pronoun, is a built-in defense: “This is just what I think and I should be immune from criticism since it’s merely an expression of personal belief.” 

This defensive use of the pronoun is a result of thinking that “I” is a safe space of opinions. But such formulations hinder discussion. Claims need to be thrown out there for people to pick up and examine. Retreating to the shelter of “I” kills discussion, which is the bedrock of not only philosophy, but also democracy. 

Instead of the fact vs. opinion distinction that breeds this defensive use of “I,” a better distinction to teach is truth-apt vs. non-truth-apt. When something is truth-apt, it is capable of being true or false. What the original fact vs. opinion distinction tries to get to is the distinction between a truth-apt statement — “something-that-can-be-true-or-false” — and a non-truth-apt statement — “something-that-can’t-be-true-or-false.” 

Stanford Professor Nadeem Hussain’s Introduction to Philosophy class replaces the fact vs. opinion distinction with normative vs. non-normative and evaluative vs. non-evaluative distinctions. These further classifications can show us why certain claims are not truth-apt: Sentences that are truth-apt, such as “San Mateo is 20 miles south of San Francisco,” are different in kind from sentences that are not truth-apt, because they are either taken as expressions of preference or suggestions for change. “I think white chocolate is nasty” might be understood as a way of saying “ew, white chocolate,” and “ew, white chocolate” isn’t quite the kind of thing that can be true or false, though it might be sincere or insincere depending on whether the speaker means it. “I think white chocolate is nasty” might also be understood as a way of saying something like “we should ban the production of white chocolate,” which is a normative expression, an expression of what should be the case. This is a suggestion to be accepted or rejected, not a claim that we should judge true or false. 

Note that non-truth-apt sentences don’t require an “I”; I could have just as easily said “white chocolate is nasty” without undermining the statement’s evaluative or normative — and therefore non-truth-apt — status. This upgraded distinction, then, allows us to keep the separations intuited by the fact vs. opinion distinction while avoiding “I”-statements to be lumped with a particular category.

In fact, I’d go as far as saying that using “I” statements is important for both truth-apt and non-truth-apt sentences because of the simple fact that you are making claims or expressing preferences. When we ask students to write papers arguing for a position, having the freedom to use the “I” makes the writing process more transparent. There is a responsible subject behind each sentence that may or may not be truth-apt, and the “I” is an appropriate owning of each claim or expression the writer espouses. 

Philosophy might be especially well-suited for “I” statements because we’re giving reasons for arguments. Literary criticism naturally invites the “I,” a subject who experiences and observes a text a certain way. But sciences, too, require subjects who report and interpret data, all activities that need human input and filter. In fact, scientific papers are filled with “we” statements. So why teach that “objective, formal” writing can’t admit first-person pronouns?

Teaching how to write with “I” also has implications for diversity, equity and inclusion. For students (and teachers!) from underrepresented backgrounds, it’s paramount to realize that we’re not disembodied minds that think, talk and write. We have specific bodies with their specific history, and we must foreground our identities with the appropriate personal indexical when we make claims or express preferences. We always write as someone, and this someone isn’t just a spirit but also a body. Teaching students how to scrub all the “I”s off their writing suggests that their identity has nothing to do with the content they’re conveying and the content nothing to do with their identity. This is not only patently false, but also dangerous. 

The fact vs. opinion distinction isn’t the right one to teach if critical thinking is the goal, and if we want students to learn how to write with the first-person pronoun. Academia would do a lot better if we didn’t impose arbitrary rules on what constitutes “acceptable” writing. It might help correct the stifled, stilted prose in which we write and help shed the impression that academia is a realm divorced from how people actually speak and write. Thinking is hard business, but prose doesn’t need to be overly restricted to count as rigorous. 

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Hannah H. Kim is a Ph.D. candidate in the Philosophy Department. She is also an Assistant Editor for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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