I must say what I mean: discuss;Subject of the week;English

17th September 1999 at 01:00
Michael Bulley says we need to make more room for the first person in A-level essay writing.

As an A-level examiner, I once saw an essay on Sophocles' Oedipus Rex that read: "From what has been said, it can be concluded that Oedipus can be seen as a victim of fate." What did the examinee mean? Perhaps something like: "I would regard Oedipus, therefore, as a victimof fate."

So, what stopped her? Well, maybe her teacher was one of those who discouraged A-level students from using the first person in essays. The aim is to promote well-reasoned writing, but the resulting stylistic frigidity is too high a price to pay. Essays become clogged up with the false neutralism of "It can be argued that . . ." and ". . . as is shown by . . ." and with such timid qualifications as "to a certain extent".

So, what is an essay for? I would say that, where argument and judgment apply, rather than just factual conclusions, it should attempt to persuade the reader of the rightness of what you are saying; that is, you are making a case, which you cannot do merely with a string of first-person reactions. Yet the essay will still be subjective.

Total originality is not compulsory in A-level essays. The arguments of others may be used, but they should be attributed. There is no such thing as an objective idea unless, perhaps, you have conducted a survey (82 per cent of respondents answered NO to the question "Is Iago to be trusted?").

An argumentative essay may indeed be written entirely in the third person, but as it is offered as the writer's view, outlawing direct or crypto-first-person expressions such as "I disagree with . . .", "I conclude that . . .", "my view, therefore...", "Let me offer . . ." would be perverse.

You may notice that this article has some first-person expressions. I do not believe eliminating them would improve it. I have also used the second person to address the reader, and in its indefinite sense. Some teachers would ban such uses. Yet stigmatising them may prejudice pupils against writers who use them well, and against literary critics they would do well to imitate.

A D Nuttall, professor of English at Oxford, for instance, writes in Why Does Tragedy Give Pleasure?: "You will realise that now, having striven to show an affinity between Nietzsche and the 18th-century enlightenment, I am making it my business to . . ."

Students will write readable essays if they consider them their own, and stilted ones if they try to produce answers they think teachers and examiners will approve of. Authenticity needs freedom and experiment. If the experiments go wrong now and again, that is a good failure, a step towards finding your own voice.

I would not dispute that giving younger children rules of writing, such as the time-honoured one of not starting sentences with And or But, can be useful. This helps to teach the idea of a sentence. But starting a sentence with either of those words can, of course, be perfectly good style. And by the time children come to read the novels of Charles Dickens, they should be aware of that.

The principle, then, is that there are no rules in language, only conventions. So while we should make older students aware of current conventions of educated English, we should also gradually free them from the misconception that there are inherent rules and encourage them to judge language, including their own, aesthetically. It is, after all, an aesthetic medium.

In external examinations, the unknown is the examiner - might he or she be a crusty anti first-person fanatic? It is not worth anticipating it. My experience is that pupils more often fail when they try to express themselves impersonally against their real intentions. The best essays I have read, from my own pupils and as an examiner, have been enthusiastically personal - well-reasoned, certainly, but also springing from a genuine response to the topic. Some had first-person sentences and some did not, but that was neither virtue nor fault.

Having started with an ugly example about Sophocles, let me end with a beautiful one. Here are the concluding sentences of an essay by a 17-year-old on the choral odes of Oedipus at Colonus: "Pessimism, I know from experience, is counter-productive, achieving nothing. I also realised that the two odes do work together, in a way. One talks of the wonders of creation, the next tells of the evils of human life. It is the humans, of course, that destroy what the gods have made."

Michael Bulley teaches at theHighworth School in Ashford, Kent, and has been an examiner for A-level classical civilisation * You know it makes sense


* "Umberto Eco has argued that..."

* "This makes me think that..."

* "You will understand it better if you know the mythology."

* "Odysseus is crafty."


* "It has been argued that..."

* "Therefore it can be said that..."

* "An understanding of the mythology is of benefit to the reader."

* "Thus it is seen that the quality of craftiness could, to a certain extent, be applied at times to the character of Odysseus."

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