Against the royal ‘we’? All those in favour, say ‘I’

At school, many of us were taught not to say ‘I’ in writing.

I disagree. Or should that be ‘the present author disagrees’? And that is part of my objection: avoiding ‘I’ can end up sounding pompous.

One example comes from the historian J.G.A. Pocock, on p. 3 of his book Politics, Language, and Time:

The present author, who seems to himself to have been concerned in this transformation from an early stage, here brings forward a number of essays designed to illustrate its character.

This is Pocock, in a book he has written, describing a transformation he was involved in, talking as if he is someone else!

Another example involves the royal ‘we’ – for example, ‘we believe that Jones is wrong’, or ‘we now turn to a second claim’. This is how monarchs often talk: ‘we thank you for your kind message’. To me, this sounds pompous.

The Queen waving

Of course, there are times when ‘we’ is right. For example, in an academic article you might describe Jones’s errors and say ‘we have seen that Jones is wrong; but are these errors fundamental?’. And you really mean ‘we have seen’ here: if you have made your case correctly, then you and your readers will indeed have seen that Jones is wrong.

But unless you are writing with a co-author, many other uses of ‘we’ sound odd, such as ‘we believe that Jones is wrong’. You and who else?

Saying ‘I’ also makes clearer when an argument is yours. This is particularly important in student essays, where good criticism leads to higher marks. If a student has made her own criticism, saying ‘I believe that Jones’s view is simplistic’ makes clear that the argument is hers; saying ‘Jones’s view can be criticised as being simplistic’ is ambiguous.

Avoiding ‘I’ is probably a leftover from a time when academics presented their work as impartial and objective. Apparently this style goes back to ancient Roman historians. But we no longer need to pretend to be objective. Far from it: it is often vital to note when an argument is subjective. Even in firmly scientific studies, we often make subjective judgements and should say so, e.g. ‘this evidence seems unreliable’ or ‘I suspect the interviewee was trying to mislead me’. Scientific judgement is personal.

Style is also personal, though, and I fully recognise that if you have spent years avoiding ‘I’, it may feel awkward and ugly to use it. But if you are nearer the start of your writing career, then you need be told that you are allowed to say ‘I’, and in many cases you should do so. In our opinion.

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