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Answer the great pronoun debate

November 02, 2013

Answer the Great Pronoun Debate

Like all types of writing, purpose and audience impact the message. Consequently, there is not a definitive always or never to using I or you in persuasive or argumentative writing. It will depend on the piece. Here are some guidelines that may help in making such a decision.

Opinion writing

Initial opinion pieces, as taught in the primary grades, are typically written from a first-person viewpoint.

  • My favorite pet is ___ .
  • I like hot dogs better than hamburgers.

This use of I, me, my, mine is partially because the students’ vocabularies and sentence structures are still limited. But it’s also in part because younger children have a narrow scope of perspectives. They don’t see that topics are debatable and can have multiple sides.

Persuasive writing

As writers mature, they still share their opinions in writing, but now in the form of more sophisticated genres. These include reviews, recommendations, proposals, letters, essays, speeches, etc. Within these pieces, the author’s purpose shifts from simply sharing one’s belief (i.e., opinion writing) to attempting to woo others to agree with it (i.e., persuasive writing).

One of the key ingredients to these more sophisticated genres is the content and substance of the writing. The emphasis is placed on the writer’s ideas, reasons, logic, examples and evidence in order to convince the audience. And readers are more easily swayed with factual information, rather than surface emotion. Therefore, persuasive writing is typically more formal in tone, resulting in first- and second-person references replaced by third-person pronouns.

Although avoiding I and you in persuasive writing is typical, there are exceptions. For example, if the intended audience of a persuasive letter or speech is a specific individual or a group, then it makes sense to direct the message to them explicitly. This might include naming the audience within the opening or greeting and/or speaking directly to the reader using an occasional you. Such references can increase personal connection between reader and writer, strengthening the persuasive tone.

Argumentative writing

Although it’s acceptable to occasionally use you in some persuasive pieces, it’s NEVER part of argumentative writing. This very formal genre addresses the multiple sides of a debatable or controversial issue that is already fueled with personal emotion. Consequently, the writer speaks in the more objective third-person point of view, replacing I or you with advocates, supporters, experts, opponents, etc. This more standoffish and report-like word choice helps to maintain a tone of fairness and reasonableness.

Before unleashing students to generate opinion, persuasive, or argumentative pieces, instruct them on how the genre and audience impact formality. Discuss their options as writers and help them make decisions about how to handle pronoun use. Then, regardless of first-, second-, or third-person references, remind students to maintain a consistent point of view throughout the entire product.

Read another article for a more granular comparison of persuasive versus argumentative writing.

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