Last week I produced a video of me writing an IELTS essay live, and I got lots of great feedback and some negative emails. I love receiving positive or negative emails because it lets me know exactly what you guys think and what I can do to help you even more.
The strange thing was that nearly all the negativity was about personal pronouns. To summarise, many of you thought I used them too much and that this was not acceptable in a Task 2 essay. I was always of the opinion that it was fine to use personal pronouns, but this made me doubt myself, so I did some research.
I first chatted with some ex-examiners and consulted some of the IELTS blogs I respect, like DC IELTS and IELTS Ryan. Below is what everyone, including myself, thought about the issue.
What are personal pronouns?
Personal pronouns are words like ‘I’, ‘we’, ‘you’ and ‘they’. Some people think that they should never be used in IELTS essays because they will make the essay sound too informal and not academic enough.
I believe that…. (informal)
This essay believes that…. (formal/academic)
If you eat too much junk food, you will get fat. (informal)
If a person eats too much junk food, that person will get fat. (formal/academic)
What does the marking criteria say?
If you are ever in doubt about anything to do with IELTS Writing, always check what the official marking criteria say first.
What does it say about personal pronouns? Nothing. What does it say about being informal or formal for Task 2? Nothing.
What do the questions say?
If you look at some of the official questions from Cambridge Examination Papers they would also seem to encourage you to use personal pronouns.
They use language like:
‘Discuss both these views and give your own opinion.’
‘Give reasons for your answer and include any relevant examples from your own knowledge or experience.’
‘To what extent do you agree or disagree.’
It would be very difficult to answer the question above without using personal pronouns, and I don’t think that Cambridge is trying to play tricks on us.
What do examiners say?
The ex-examiners I have spoken to all say the same thing. It is fine to use them, but don’t overuse them.
When can we actually use them?
It is absolutely fine to use personal pronouns when giving opinions and when giving examples. Just don’t use them throughout the whole essay, i.e. in every sentence.
Also, if you don’t want to use them and prefer to use very academic language, then that is fine too.
In the past, I have advised students to use academic ways to give examples and opinions, but this is only because I was afraid they would overuse personal pronouns throughout the essay.
It should also be noted that you have many things to be worrying about when writing your essay, so adding in the worry of counting how many personal pronouns you are using should not be encouraged. Relax.
It is acceptable to use them when giving your opinion or examples if you like, but don’t overuse them in the rest of the essay. However, it is not in the marking scheme, so do not make it a major concern. The things specifically listed in the marking criteria are the things you need to focus on.
2 + 2 =
Some of the emails I got were quite irate, and some were from IELTS teachers who said I was misleading students by including personal pronouns in my essay.
What I would say to that is IELTS Writing is not mathematics. If I had said that 2 + 2 = 5, then I could understand their anger, but writing is a fluid discipline, and many different answers and methods can result in a high score.
I also do not publish anything unless it has been approved by at least one of many ex-examiners I know.
I hope you found this useful and that it cleared up some of the issues. Please let me know what you think by commenting below or joining the conversation on Facebook.