Me, Myself and I

2:51 AM

A startling study came to my attention the other day: the usage of I in an individual's writings reveals his mental stability and social security. It isn't too surprising, after all; in real life, a shyer person generally avoids the subject of himself altogether while the extrovert isn't afraid to babble on and on about everything related to him. We know from experience that such a person is reluctant to give up the soap box or center stage, and we become quite familiar with him.

However -- and this is where the startling comes in -- that's not the case with writing. The more a person inserts I, the more he reveals his insecurity and unhappiness. Those susceptible to depression and suicide tend to start every other sentence with I. And the confident, the happy, the well-adjusted? They rarely mention the fact that they're writing at all. They keep their I's to themselves.

Happy thoughts. Especially since the I count in my writing has probably tipped the scales.

Another observation (by somebody named Pennebaker) runs along the same lines: the less one uses I, the more one comes across as self-confident. The person on the lower rung of a relationship uses I more, while the higher up doesn't bother with that word as much. I connotes warmth and personality.

It got me thinking: Is it possible to write an entire essay without using the word I? Or more to the point, is it possible for me too?

For after all, I gives off a sort of snottiness undesirable to a person of humble aspirations such as myself. There's no I in team, we're told, and the word gets an absolute drubbing in business writing classes. Conversely, it couches insecurity: I think and I believe softens a would-have-been bold statement. It's self-focused, self-absorbed, self-aware.

Think about classic nonfiction literature -- Mere Christianity, Knowing God and The Pursuit of God comes first to mind. All three have a rich, personal, strong tone without the overuse and abuse of I. When they do throw one in, it jumps out -- as if you, the humble, average-intelligence reader, just became the privileged recipient of a great thinker's personal opinion. (It works backwards with fiction: C. S. Lewis loved inserting himself into the narrator role.)

But without it, nobody conveys anything he thinks or feels or knows from personal experience. That's why research papers forbid I: it's too full of personality and humanity and interestingness and yes, subjectivity -- which is what being human is. It's a little self-important, like all of us, and a little insecure, like most of us (the honest ones, at any rate). Too much of it bangs people over the head with self-absorption. Too little of it sucks  out the relational part of writing, the act two distinct persons and their ideas coming together over some paper and black ink.

Writing this essay has convinced me that it is not just possible to forbid myself from using I as a pronoun but also ridiculous and hard on the brain cells. So much that could have been said wasn't -- which might not be a bad thing for you but puts me out of sorts.

You never knew the word I and its usage could take up a whole blog post, did you?

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4 impressions

  1. Ha ha, I just read the same thing in my psychology textbook the other week! I skimmed it and then thought, "Hmm...let's just conveniently forget about this interesting little detail." ;-)

    If you think YOU have a problem with using the word "I" too much in your writing, you should see mine. You could divide the words I use into two groups: 50% are "I" usages, and the other 50% is everything else!!

    *sigh*. Maybe the psychologists are wrong. ;-)

    P.S. Did you find that study in a psychology textbook, too? Because I couldn't help noticing that you also demonstrated the hindsight bias in your first paragraph. That's not funny unless you've had to do as much psychology reading as I have, but if you have had to, you may appreciate the humor. ;-)

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  2. Once again, that sounds like me...

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  3. This is a timely post, for I was just thinking about the use and overuse of 'I'. My best friend and I live several states away, and interact through the internet. Last year, we also began to correspond through letters. Just recently, she challenged us to each write a letter to the other without using 'I'. How surprised was Yours Truly to see how difficult this was. :P It was hilarious to see all of the grammar loopholes we exploited, and an eye-opening experience to see how much we use 'I'.

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  4. Julia, I know -- we should dump standard psychology and rewrite our own textbook according to our expert opinion on I usage. I think I read about the study in a magazine? (And yes, I love the hindsight bias! It makes one look so prophetic.)

    Hmmm...are we sisters, Bethany?

    Abigail, nobody will get to see the ridiculous grammatical gymnastics I deleted from this post. It was the worst writing challenge EVER...but definitely a good humility booster. ;o)

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