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I often find myself writing a lot of comments to blog posts and responses on forums, and have noticed a tendency to start a lot of sentences with 'I'. 'I think...', 'I had no idea', 'I used to...' etc. Is there a general style guideline about avoiding this, or is is acceptable when you're writing opinionated pieces?

Repetition in general is poor style in my book, but when I start to shift around my sentences to avoid starting them with 'I', they tend to sound too stilted.

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And you start your question with I ? :) –  Chouchenos Dec 21 '10 at 9:05
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I know! Err... Don't I know it! ;) –  Joost Schuur Dec 21 '10 at 9:33
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Moderation in all things, including moderation –  nohat Jan 31 '11 at 2:26
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8 Answers

up vote 15 down vote accepted

It is helpful to consider in each case whether the emphasis of the sentence should be yourself or something else. I've struggled for a while now to completely purge the passive from my own writing, and by swinging completely the other way, I ended up with awkward sentences that failed to get my point across in some instances. I suggest emphasizing "I" when the fact of your opinion is itself the subject of the sentence or thought, and de-emphasizing it when some other subject should take the lead--whether or not this means using passive voice (see, e.g., the first sentence of this post).

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Lots of good angles here in everyone's response, but I liked the concept of the perspective in your answer the best. –  Joost Schuur Dec 22 '10 at 13:23
    
The first sentence of your post doesn't contain a passive (though it does contain an impersonal, which in many cases has the same drawbacks as the passive :-) –  psmears Jan 16 '11 at 10:57
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Rather than share your reactions to things, why not make statements about the things themselves? Make the subject of the sentence the topic of discussion, not yourself. Most people enjoy sharing their own experiences, but that can lead us to say "I" compulsively, and it can definitely get a little repetitive.

So if your writing sounds stilted when you change the sentence around, it's probably because you're trying to reword to avoid "I" without really rethinking to address the reason you're saying "I" all the time in the first place.

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That actually touches on my main concern. It comes off as a little ego centric to start your sentences with 'I', but if I go for a more general statement, I'm no longer talking from personal experience alone, and can only in good conscience make assertions if I can back them up with evidence. Hence this problem usually occurs in forums with a very opinionated slant (TV show discussions e.g.( –  Joost Schuur Dec 21 '10 at 4:51
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@Joost Schuur: If you say that something is true, doesn't it imply that you believe it? You'll actually appear more opinionated (for better or for worse!) if you speak in absolutes, e.g., "This movie is terrible" rather than "I didn't like this movie." –  Jon Purdy Dec 21 '10 at 5:11
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I* wouldn't worry too much about blog posts and message boards (english.stackexchange.com notwithstanding), but if you intend to do any serious writing you would do well to mix it up. It sounds as though you already have some inkling that repetition and self absorption in writing can grow tiresome.

Well, the wish to be cured is itself a step towards health. Just remember, the job of the most interesting man in the world has already been filled, and there are currently no openings.

* Haha. Seriously.

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You did remind me of a good point: Your writing adapts to the context and medium you're in. What's acceptable in an Internet forum on TV is different than a competitive customer analysis or newspaper article e.g. –  Joost Schuur Dec 21 '10 at 10:14
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Something I didn't see mentioned in the other answers is that the use of "I" you described is partially English-specific, in that there are languages in which the word for "I" can often be omitted due to inflected verb forms. Thus, in some languages, the repetition of first-person singular verbs can be less conspicuous because you don't end up with the same word beginning every sentence.

Mainly for this reason, I'm pretty indifferent about this particular style issue; that is, it generally doesn't bother me, and I'm not led to believe that the writer is egocentric, unless there are other signs of this personality trait.

The way we experience life is subjective, so there is a natural tendency to say things like "I had no idea that..." because we wish to share experiences.

Some general thoughts that may or may not be useful to you -- I find these style guidelines to be the most important, in no particular order: (1) Write in a way that is appropriate for your intended audience. (2) Write in a way that you find interesting.

Reasoning: (1) Reaching a target audience indicates good communication skills. (2) Having a well developed sense of personal standards indicates substance/character/ownership.

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This also got me thinking: Don't let your own pet peeves prevent you from otherwise bringing your point across. If you're too focused on eliminating that 'I' at the start of the sentence and it keeps you from writing readably, then just relax your personal standards and err on the side of comprehension over style. –  Joost Schuur Dec 21 '10 at 22:27
    
Interesting. So you are suggesting a long time solution-improving communication skills. –  Theta30 Nov 29 '11 at 23:12
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This is a very good question to ask if you, like me, are writing cover letters for job applications. A stream of "I did this..." and "I achieved..." gets old quickly. Thinking through the expectations or context of your audience helps a lot. In "application land," there are several ready-to-hand alternate choices, such as "The job description calls for..." or "This opportunity is a good fit for..." As a practical matter, they all wind up being sentences about "me" -- that's unavoidable; but varying the structure and emphasizing the perspective of your reader helps ameliorate it.

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Even when you are the center of your thought, there are ways to add variety to responses. Using I at the beginning of a sentence is most tiring back-to-back, so instead of

I used to play in a band but then I got a real job

instead you can just swap the clauses around to keep your writing from going stale. This example could become

Once I got a real job, playing in a band was too much of a hassle.

Not only do you eliminate an I, but the sentence doesn't start with I and instead of using the basic verb play stuck to the in a band phrase, the second example has playing in a band as all one phrase. Variety tends to keep readers' interest longer than assembly-line thoughts.

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It's acceptable, but it's unnecessary. If it's already clear that you're expressing an opinion, then there's no need to state that.

Some might argue that emphasizing that your opinion is just that makes clear that you're not stating a fact. But such emphasis isn't needed where the context is already clear.

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This has less to do with proper usage, more to do with style. When I teach or write some kind of exposition, I generally try to avoid using the word "I" and try to use "we" instead. The purpose of this is to try to convey the idea that you are involved in the conversation.

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