The First Person Distraction

We historians usually avoid using the first person “I” or “we” in our formal writing. We do so for the very good reason that the first person pronoun so often distracts the reader (and the writer) from the historical issues at hand.

More specifically:

  • There is no need to repeatedly state “I think” or “I argue” in a historical essay. You can simply state your points directly and concisely. The fact that you are the author implies that you believe what you are writing.
  • Historians generally strive to inhabit and represent the (often very alien) points of view of people from the past. We recognize that we cannot achieve objectivity, but we nevertheless need to make every effort to avoid conflating our own assumptions and values with those of other people from distant times and places. Avoiding the first person often plays a role in achieving this disciplined perspective.
  • The first person plural “we,” which I am using appropriately in this post, should also be avoided in most cases. For instance, it confuses the historical issue to say that “we” invented a new form of republican government (in the 1780s) or to say that “we” liberated African American slaves (in the 1860s). The fact is that “we” also opposed the American Revolution and “we” fought to expand and preserve slavery. The “we” — in all of these contexts — is so imprecise as to be meaningless.
  • Developing writers frequently lapse into the first person when they are struggling to articulate a main point or to create a transition. In such cases, the first person “I” is literally an evasion of the writing challenge at hand.
  • None of this is to say that you should never use the first person in a historical essay. Historians do routinely use the first person in prefaces and introductions when they are discussing why and how they did their research. Furthermore, historians do sometimes need to write about personal experiences. The first person should be reserved for such special occasions, rather than interjected into analyses of the far removed past.

    Anatomy of a Comment

    Blogs provide a useful forum for readers to interact with blog authors and with one another. There are many different kinds of blogs, however, and there is no single correct way to post a comment. Different kinds of blogs engender different kinds of comments. The primary purpose of Ex Post Facto is to promote discussion of history, and many historical issues are complex. A constructive comment, then, may be fairly complex while still being concise. When making comments here, please consider including the following elements:

    1. Opening: Start by making it clear, somehow, what you are responding to. Are you responding to an idea or question in the original post? Make that clear. Or, are you responding to a comment left by another reader? If so, use the person’s name in your opening sentence.
    2. Main Point: A solid comment often consists of a single paragraph. In most cases, you should use this paragraph to make a single main point, and you should state that point as clearly as you can. If you have multiple, separate points to make, it’s probably best to post more than one comment, simply to make it easier for others to respond.
    3. Explanation and Evidence: After you have stated your point, you will probably need to explain it a bit. In many cases, you will need to give evidence to support your point. Why do you believe your position to be true? Feel free to include links to any evidence that exists online. (See the second comment below.)
    4. Further Questions: You may want to conclude by asking a question or two of the blog author or of other readers. If you do ask a question, or if you just want to follow any subsequent discussion of the post, you can click the checkbox to sign up for comment notification for the post that you are responding to.

    When commenting, there are a couple of other things to keep in mind. First, remember that your comment will be published online. You are making a public statement, and you should therefore be civil. This site will not publicize your email address, but whatever name you enter will be public. You may use your first name and last initial, rather than your full name — it’s up to you. Second, if you are making a substantial point, you should use standard written English. (Write in complete sentences and use proper spelling, capitalization, and punctuation.) Finally, if your comment is very specific, you can add a title at the top in ALL CAPS in order to make your topic clear, visible, and easy for other readers to refer to.

    I have posted a sample comment below to illustrate the points that I’ve made here.

    Beware the Pseudo-Thesis

    A pseudo-thesis is an attempted thesis statement that falls flat because it fails to state a specific argument.

    Often, the pseudo-thesis appears in the form of a rhetorical question, such as, “Was it really necessary for the United States to enter the Great War?” Although this kind of questioning is important to the writing process, it is counter-productive within the context of an argumentative essay. The point of the essay, after all, is to attempt to answer the question. To withhold the answer — to withhold your position — is to risk losing your reader. It’s only with the thesis in mind that the reader can make sense of the essay’s evidence.

    Another way to write a pseudo-thesis is to tell the reader what the essay is going to do. For instance: “This essay will explore the significance of foreign trade for the U.S. entry into the Great War.” That’s all fine and well, but it only reveals the topic of the essay — not the argument.  It begs the question.  Likewise, the pseudo-thesis might simply list the subjects that the essay will cover: “This essay will consider the role of political idealism and economic interest in connection with the U.S. entry into the Great War.” In this case, the author should go ahead and make the nature of that connection explicit.

    Most commonly, a pseudo-thesis is simply vague, as in the following examples:

  • The U.S. entered the Great War for several reasons.
  • The U.S. entry into the Great War was very controversial.
  • Each of these examples begs the question. What were the reasons? Why was it controversial?

    A pseudo-thesis is not only ineffective, but it often symptomizes a larger problem: the need for revision. Writing a good essay requires embarking on a process of drawing some significant conclusion and arguing on its behalf. It takes time and thought to sharpen a thesis. Many good writers actually start out with a pseudo-thesis, just to get going, and only gradually refine that statement into a specific and precise statement about the position to be argued.

    For more help, see “So What? Writing with a Thesis.”

    The Work of Topic Sentences

    The “topic sentence” that you should have at the beginning of every paragraph in an essay is probably misnamed — at least if you are writing to make an argument. In an argumentative essay, topic sentences need to do more than simply mention a “topic” for the paragraph. To be effective, a topic sentence should both state a specific main point for the paragraph and implicitly refer back to the essay’s thesis.

    Just as the defense attorney explains why the witness’s testimony clears her client, the topic sentences of an essay should move your argument along, explaining how and why the forthcoming evidence supports your main point. If a paragraph lacks an argumentative topic sentence, it is merely dispensing information, which may well seem pointless to your readers.

    To test whether a would-be topic sentence is actually doing its job, you might ask: does the sentence have a built-in answer to the “so what” question? If not, you probably need to revise. Often, you will need to write a somewhat more complex sentence that links together multiple concepts. (If you start applying this test, you might notice that no sentence that simply states a fact — that merely describes — can meet the “so what” criterion.)

    Here, for instance, are a couple of weak topic sentences for a paragraph about the U.S. Constitution, in an essay that says it argues that the Constitution forged a legitimate representative government:

    • The convention that framed the Constitution met in Philadelphia.
    • The framers had difficulty figuring out a system of representation.

    The first sentence above is merely a statement of fact — it doesn’t have any power to advance an argument. The second sentence at least includes an idea, that the issue of representation posed difficulties, but it is too vague: it neither attempts to explain why there was a problem nor why the problem mattered.

    Here, by contrast, is a sentence that could help advance the thesis in question:

    • The ratification debate and process allowed ordinary voters, including the majority of free men, to give the Constitution their approval.

    This sentence works because it puts together two ideas — the ratification process and voter approval — and these ideas in turn help support the thesis.  (I have to add, though, that this argument is far from airtight, historically speaking, given that the ratification process excluded the majority of the adult population, including all women and unfree servants and slaves.)

    Topic sentences often need to do the additional work of helping make the transition from one paragraph to the next.  You can usually make a transition with just a word or phrase that refers to the main idea of the previous paragraph.  (Note that you do not need to make the transition twice — at both the end of one paragraph and the beginning of the next.  On my essay rubric, I call this “overwriting” a transition.)  But you usually need to gesture at the connections between each paragraph.  Again, the purpose of doing so is to help move your argument along by connecting one idea to the next and explaining why each idea matters.

    The well-written topic sentence thus plays a crucial role in the development of your essay’s argument. An essay without argumentative topic sentences will probably leave your reader unpersuaded and unsatisfied. You may be filling the pages, but you won’t be making your point.

    Position Papers

    (Note: These guidelines are for the Position Papers for the Early American Republic course.)

    Three times during the semester, you will submit a 2-page “Position Paper” both on paper and to the D2L dropbox. The schedule in the course syllabus specifies the due dates and topics.

    Follow these guidelines for each position paper:

  • Begin with a brief introductory paragraph that introduces the topic and provides basic historical context.
  • State your thesis at the end of the introduction. Rather than vaguely signaling a position, your thesis statement should be quite specific.
  • Somewhere near the beginning of the essay, define the key terms in question. For the first paper, for instance, you will need to define democratic. (It’s best to use your own words or to quote a historian, rather than quoting a dictionary.)
  • Your essay should BRIEFLY quote (and paraphrase) the assigned primary and secondary sources in order to provide evidence and examples for your claim.
  • Adhere to the Writing Rules posted on this site.
  • In order to keep the attention focused on the subject at hand (events that transpired long, long ago), please avoid using the first person.
  • Avoid oversimplifying the issue in order to put up a strong argument; instead, show various perspectives on the issue at hand. Strengthen your argument by qualifying it, rather than by exaggerating its merits.
  • Use Chicago-style footnotes or endnotes to cite your sources. See p. 193 (section 42) of Diana Hacker’s Pocket Style Manual, which is a required text for the course. Be sure to format your notes using footnote/endnote style, rather than bibliographic style. Also, be sure to observe the rule (42a) about subsequent references. The first citation of every source should give complete information. Subsequent citations should include only the author’s last name, a shortened title, and the page number. Finally, don’t torture yourself by trying to format footnotes manually; your word processing software should have an “insert footnote” function. (Click here for help with inserting notes in MS Word.)
  • Take care to avoid plagiarism. Review my plagiarism guidelines. Remember that you must use quotation marks to indicate that you have borrowed language directly from a source, and you must quote accurately. Stick to the assigned readings as your sources.
  • Syntactical Indeterminacy

    You do get a few hits for this phrase if you Google it, but I recognize that it probably needs to be defined.

    Syntax refers to a language’s rules about how words fit together in a sentence. Many of these rules go unstated most of the time.

    If I were to rephrase the previous sentence as follows, you would know that I wasn’t following the rules of English syntax:

    Go unstated most of the time many of the rules.

    Few native speakers of English would say such a thing. (Yoda’s native tongue was not English.) But native speakers do sometimes write sentences whose syntax suffers from indeterminacy: it starts out heading in one direction but then takes an unexpected — and ungrammatical — turn, leaving readers scratching their heads and forcing them to start over.

    When I encounter such a sentence, I find myself mentally repunctuating it as I read it for the second or third time. Read this sentence carefully:

    Abraham Lincoln was in his forties as a national crisis erupted over slavery, going back into politics for this reason, Lincoln ran for the senate and the presidency.

    Did you notice any problems? This sentence is a form of run-on known as a comma splice. Furthermore, it suffers from syntactical indeterminacy. If you were indeed reading every word, you probably assumed that the phrase “going back” was going to refer to the crisis over slavery. Instead, the (imaginary) writer started over with a new independent clause that had no syntactical connection to the previous independent clause. The comma should have been either a period or a semicolon (which indicates a full stop in most situations).

    If you were skimming over the words (barely reading), you might not even notice such an error, but if you were reading carefully, you probably had to stop in your tracks, go back, and reread. As far as I can tell, the human brain can only track one syntax at a time, so it doesn’t do so well when the syntax suddenly shifts. Creative writers, of course, sometimes play syntactical tricks on their readers, but if you are writing to argue or describe or explain, you probably don’t want to throw up roadblocks to reader comprehension.

    To avoid syntactical indeterminacy when you are integrating quotations into your own sentences, and thus into your own syntax, you need to make sure that the syntax of your sentence matches up with that of the quotation. Just because you are quoting does not mean that the rules of syntax no longer apply!

    Usually, if you are quoting part of a sentence, you can find a way to work it naturally into your own sentence, with no special punctuation. For instance:

    The 1848 Seneca Falls “Declaration of Sentiments” echoed the Declaration of Independence, stating that “all men and women are created equal.”

    If you are quoting more than one independent clause, however, you need to set the quotation off with a colon, thus separating the syntax of your sentence from that of the quotation. If you don’t use a colon in such a situation, you create a run-on. In other words, if a quotation starts inside your own syntax, it must end there, too. Here’s an example of an error:

    In his second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln noted the surprising length and severity of the Civil War, “Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease.”

    Above, Lincoln’s sentences are simply spliced onto the previous sentence, creating a comma splice. Notice how the next example runs on:

    Much like the Declaration of Independence, the 1848 Seneca Falls “Declaration” included a long list of grievances, such as “He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise. He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice. He has withheld from her rights which are given to the most ignorant and degraded men–both natives and foreigners.”

    This kind of error, unfortunately, does appear in copyedited, published writing. The problem here is that, technically speaking, the three independent clauses of the quotation have been inserted into the syntax of the original sentence, which creates a series of run-on sentences. Again, just because you are quoting does not mean that the rules of syntax no longer apply. All that this passage needs is a colon to set off the quotation. The rule-abiding reader will know that the colon constitutes a syntactical break.

    Writing Rules

    We know from folk wisdom and fables that appearances can be deceiving. Wolves sometimes wear sheep’s clothing, and good books sometimes have bad covers. Nevertheless, when it comes to your writing, appearance as well as content will shape your readers’ opinions of your work. The conventions of spelling and grammar may be mere conventions, but they are conventions that facilitate communication. Readers will notice if you fail to observe the rules. Sometimes a misspelled word or misused punctuation mark will alert your readers that you did not take the time to proofread. More seriously, an error may leave readers unsure of what you meant: content and style are not easily separated.

    Therefore, if you are taking a Writing Emphasis course, I will hold you accountable for the following five rules when grading your formal essays. I will deduct 0.5% from your grade for each violation of the rules below, up to a maximum of 8% per assignment. Make sure that you understand these rules!

    Each rule includes an UPPER-CASE abbreviation that I will use to indicate your errors when giving you feedback.

    For additional help, see Mary Rampolla’s Pocket Guide to Writing in History and Diana Hacker’s Pocket Style Manual.

    Writing Rules:

    1. Proofread (PRF)
    2. Complete Sentences (SENT)
    3. Gender-Inclusive Language (GIL)
    4. Integrate Quotations (IQ)
    5. Past Tense (PT)

    Past Tense (PT)

    When you are writing about the past, use the past tense consistently.

    Use the past tense to write about the past. You should only use the present tense in a historical essay when you are writing about the present. Note that your historical interpretation itself is taking place in the present; so it may be appropriate to write that evidence “suggests” a particular conclusion.

    Wrong: The coming of World War II finally ends the Great Depression.

    Right: The coming of World War II finally ended the Great Depression.


    Wrong: Thomas Jefferson says that “all men are created equal,” and this principle helped inspire the American Revolution.

    Right: Thomas Jefferson said that “all men are created equal,” and this principle helped inspire the American Revolution.

    Comment: Although it is technically acceptable to write “Thomas Jefferson says,” because you are writing about a text that exists in the present, this use of the “historical present” does not work well in historical writing–it will lead to unnecessary and confusing tense switching.

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    Integrate Quotations (IQ)

    All quotations must be properly integrated into your own sentences.

    When using quotations to provide evidence or examples, you must connect them to your own sentences. This connection is necessary to help the reader see both the source of the quotation and your reason for using it. (The relationship between your own words and a quotation should be immediately apparent; readers should not have to look for the citation or footnote.)

    Short quotations can often be integrated directly into your own sentences, but quotations that include a new grammatical subject or that consist of more than one independent clause must be set off with a colon. You cannot incorporate a multi-sentence quotation into the syntax of your own sentence. It just doesn’t work! Even putting aside the rules of grammar and syntax, you need to introduce quotations in order to use them effectively to support your points. A quotation dropped into your prose from out of nowhere is confusing rather than helpful.

    Wrong: Powhatan’s famous daughter was not the infatuated girl from Disney’s version of the story. “Pocahontas was a dutiful child who fulfilled a very traditional function in Native politics and diplomacy.”

    Right: Powhatan’s famous daughter was not the infatuated girl from Disney’s version of the story. As Daniel Richter argued in Facing East from Indian Country, “Pocahontas was a dutiful child who fulfilled a very traditional function in Native politics and diplomacy.”

    Comment: In the wrong version, the source of the quotation is unclear. The purpose of quoting a secondary source is to supply evidence or an especially insightful idea. To achieve the intended effect, the quotation must come from an apparent and reliable source.


    Wrong: In his second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln noted the surprising length and severity of the Civil War, “Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease.”

    Right: In his second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln noted the surprising length and severity of the Civil War: “Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease.”

    Comment: Notice that the wrong version creates a comma splice, because the first comma is followed by an independent clause without an intervening conjunction (see SENT). Furthermore, the syntax collapses, because the multiple independent clauses of the quotation are erroneously inserted into the syntax of the primary clause.


    For more help with integrating quotations into your writing, see section 41 of the Pocket Style Manual and chapter 7 of the Pocket Guide to Writing in History.

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    Gender-Inclusive Language (GIL)

    Use gender-inclusive language when appropriate.

    Avoid using language that apparently excludes women when you actually mean to include them. Use humanity or humankind instead of man or mankind. Do not use he or him or his to refer to a generic person. Instead, alternate male and female pronouns, use both pronouns together, or switch to a plural construction. (But do not use s/he, which is a non-word, or she/he, which is clumsy.) Please note that in some cases, you would be distorting the past by using gender-inclusive language. If you are writing about American voters in the 1830s, for instance, it would be misleading to write about men and women casting ballots.

    For more help with this issue, see section 9d of the Pocket Style Manual.

    Wrong: In order to become a full member of the congregation, a Puritan had to tell about his conversion experience.

    Right: In order to become a full member of the congregation, a Puritan had to tell about his or her conversion experience.

    Right: In order to become full members of the congregation, Puritans had to tell about their conversion experiences.

    Wrong: In order to become a full member of the congregation, a Puritan had to tell their conversion story.

    Comment: Their is a plural pronoun. Do not use it when referring to a singular noun or pronoun (in this case, Puritan).

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