April 11, 2008

Defending the personal pronoun


My sister, who teaches college writing, argues for the first-person essay:

If the problem is the lack of expert/credible sources in students' writing, not using first person doesn't solve the problem; it just covers it up . . . . I'd much rather read a student's personal/eyewitness account of 9/11 than a thousand third-person conspiracy theories.

This is one of Seth Roberts' hobbyhorses, that personal data is much better than no data at all, and while not every correlation points to a cause ("I did X, then Y happened"), it probably points to something. A placebo effect is still an effect. He recently pointed to this article about self-experimentation in defense of first-person emperical evidence.

This is somewhat beside the point, but I'm pretty sure the part in the article about the doctor injecting himself with his patient's blood was the basis for a House episode ("You Don't Want to Know").

The problem of presenting evidence and making testable claims aside, the first person does help to discipline POV, a reason I recall mystery writer Dick Francis citing. I do prefer the third person, but must admit to getting notes back from my editor saying, "POV violation!"

Disbelievers in the power of the personal pronoun can always wander over to the "This I Believe" website.

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