Can I Write ‘I’ In My Essay? Personal Pronoun Problems

I remember when I was an 18 year-old first year undergraduate student writing an essay about the metaphors within the Sherlock Holmes fictional universe.

This was my first ever academic essay. I was really excited to see how well I had done.

When I got my essay feedback, I was shocked to see the advice from my lecturer: “Go to study skills classes. You need to learn how to write an academic essay”.

I was embarrassed, but no-one had ever taught me how to write an academic essay.

I was a decent student and English had always been my best subject, but now I was being advised to go to classes to help me to write essays!

There were two main issues with my essay. One was that it was too informal. The other issue was to do with the essay structure.

This article addresses part of the formality issue which many students struggle with: the use of the first person singular ‘I’.

Can I write ‘I’, ‘my’, ‘we’ or ‘you’ in an essay?

The short answer: No. You should avoid using them. They’re impersonal and informal. You can damage the strength of your argument by using them.

The long answer: ‘I’ depends on a few different factors. You should still avoid using ‘my’, ‘we’ or ‘you’, though. The factors which affect the use of ‘I’ are:

  • The subject that you’re studying: A fashion design text might use ‘I’ more than a biology or physics text, for example. From the texts that you read on your course, you can usually tell if ‘I’ is appropriate.
  • The type of text you’re writing: A reflective essay on your experience or your progression on your course could use ‘I’. This is because you will write about your own experiences. Using ‘I’ would probably be inappropriate in an essay which requires you to evaluate or argue.
  • What your tutor wants: Your tutor or lecturer will sometimes tell you if they want a personal account. In this case, you should use ‘I’. Check your assignment brief if you think that your tutor wants you to write a personal account.

If you are in doubt about whether ‘I’ is appropriate, don’t use it.        

You can still see with no ‘I’s

What can I use instead of ‘I’?

There are several ways you can avoid using ‘I’. Let’s look at them:’

‘I’ alternative Description Examples: Example sentence:
The Passive Voice Change the voice of the sentence and remove the ‘I’. The passive voice is generally considered more academic than the active voice, too. Bonus! considered… believed… argued… suggested…

Instead of: I believe that Smith’s (2015) argument is convincing.

Try: Smith’s (2015) argument is believed to be convincing.

Impersonal Expressions There are some expressions in English which have the main purpose of being academic. Use these when you would normally use ‘I’. There is/are…

It is…

Instead of: I believe that Smith’s (2015) argument is strong for two main reasons.

Try: There are two main reasons why Smith’s (2015) argument is strong.

An Abstract Subject This alternative changes the focus from you to the essay or another subject that represents you. It stops you from being too direct. The author…

This paper/ essay/ article…

The researcher…

The data…

Instead of: I will argue that the positives of mass tourism strongly outweigh the negatives.

Try: This essay will argue that the positives of mass tourism strongly outweigh the negatives.


Learning how to use the passive and impersonal expressions can take a little bit of time because you may need to change words, the word order and word form.

I’m writing my essay now – what can I do to stop being personal?

If you’re looking for a *quick fix* for ‘I’, you can try this simple technique that I call ‘Search and Destroy’:

  1. Open your word processor (eg. Microsoft Word) and press ctrl+f (Windows) or command+f (Mac), and type in ‘I’.
  2. Scroll through each of these ‘I’ instances, and change them using an abstract subject.

You can literally eliminate all informal uses of ‘I’ using this simple technique.

This is how the window looks in Word

Final Words

Using personal pronouns is generally too informal and personal to be used in academic writing.


  • Don’t use ‘you’, ‘we’, ‘our’, ‘my’, ‘we’ in an academic essay.
  • Avoid using ‘I’ unless your lecturer tells you to use it.
  • Make your writing less personal by using the passive voice, impersonal expressions or abstract subjects.

But these aren’t the only informal issues that students have. Check this post for 4 more ways to correct informal writing.

If you’re working on an essay right now, try my ‘search and destroy’ technique from above.




3 thoughts on “Can I Write ‘I’ In My Essay? Personal Pronoun Problems”

  1. Pingback: Help! My Writing is Too Informal! | English For Study

  2. Many thanks for your clear and detailed explanation provided with the examples. May I ask you a question? I’d like to know in what types of essays it is strongly prohibited to use personal pronouns if we are talking about CAE writing exam assessment

    1. Hi Eva. I’m glad the article was useful. The advice is specifically for academic writing – like essays or dissertations for university. If you’re a bit informal in your CAE essay, you will be fine.

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