Home > Classroom, Writing > I think, therefore I am not sure.

I think, therefore I am not sure.

I have often discouraged students from  using “I think …” or “In my opinion …” as a way of introducing their ideas. The problem is not the use of the first person, which is now accepted in academic writing by anyone born after 1900. The problem isn’t even with those specific phrases as such, since a quick browse through some academic journals will pull up plenty of cases. The problem is that students tend to use them to introduce their main arguments, and this does not look good. It might work in some other genres, such as reports (I’m not sure because I haven’t studied these genres) but in academic writing, as I tell my students, “I think …” generally means “I think, but I’m not sure,” and “In my opinion …” generally means “This is only my opinion.” I say “generally” because different writers may put their own slant on these words, and some disciplines are so speculative that “I think” may be the strongest you can manage. But normally we see these phrases used for points made in passing, rather than for the thesis of the paper.

What I’d forgotten until now was that this is not yet another example of the weirdness of academic writing; it’s actually the way these words are used in everyday conversation as well. I’d ignored  this because I’d been brainwashed by reading so many essays where students had concluded triumphantly “I think cannabis should be legalized” or “In my opinion, Composition classes should be abolished,” as though their use of these phrases strengthened their points rather than weakening them. Next time the issue comes up in class, though, instead of talking about the conventions of academic discourse, I’ll just ask “Would you say to your boy- or girlfriend ‘I think I love you,’ or ‘In my opinion, you’re hot’?”

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Categories: Classroom, Writing
  1. December 16, 2010 at 7:52 am

    By the way, in case anyone objects to the punctuation of the title …

    Yes, I know that according to the way we are supposed to punctuate sentences containing two clauses linked by an adverbial, Descartes’ Cogito should read “I think; therefore, I am.” But it doesn’t. I googled it and didn’t find a single semi-colon before result #54. Even Google Scholar doesn’t turn up a semi-colon until result #46. All the rest separate the clauses with a comma or not at all.

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