TOEFL essay
TOEFL, TOEFL Writing, TOEFL Integrated Writing, TOEFL Independent Writing, TOEFL Grammar

Personal pronouns are a common part of everyday English speech and as such any TOEFL candidate should be thoroughly familiar with them. They would certainly help you in the speaking, reading, or listening parts of the test… but what about writing?

What are personal pronouns?

Personal pronouns are words that can replace a noun in a sentence, but which refer to a person. These include: I, you, we, he, she, they, as well as the possessive forms like my, yours, and so on.

These words can be used in a sentence when it is obvious to what they refer. In English, we use “I” a lot compared to other languages, in which it often sounds a little arrogant. We also use “you” as a second-person pronoun, meaning it does not specifically refer to the listener but to all people in general.

Can you use them in TOEFL writing?

People often ask whether or not it is acceptable to use personal pronouns in the TOEFL writing test, and the answer is pretty much “yes.”

Take this question from the second part of the writing test as an example:

  • Do you agree or disagree with the following statement?
  • It is better to have lots of different friends than it is to have just a few friends.
  • Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.

Notice that the question directly asks you for your opinion. In fact, it even uses the pronoun “you”. Clearly, it is acceptable to respond to this with “I.”

You might give an answer to this question that says something like “I believe that it is better to have just a few good friends…” and then cite an example from your personal life to justify your opinion that includes, “When I was fourteen, my best friends were…”

It is also quite common to say “we” in reference to the whole of humanity, or “they” in reference to a large group of people. If you cited a person, you could of course use “he” or “she” to refer to them after they are first introduced.

In short, it is perfectly acceptable to use personal pronouns in TOEFL writing.

Why do some people advise against using personal pronouns?

You might hear some people arguing that it is wrong to use personal pronouns in TOEFL writing and they do have a reasonable point. Whilst you can use them, perhaps you shouldn’t…

There is an argument that says TOEFL requires university-level English and one of the basic ideas of academic writing is that it is impersonal. An academic essay would not feature the comment:

  • I believe that we can overcome the pollution crisis.

Rather, it would say something like:

  • This essay will argue in favour of the notion that humanity is capable of overcoming the pollution crisis.

Note that in the second example, “I” was replaced by “this essay” and “we” was replaced by “humanity.” In other words, the level of formality has been raised because there are no more personal pronouns. An essay with this sort of language would likely score higher than an essay that uses more personal language.

It is not wrong to use personal pronouns, but you should limit their use for TOEFL (as well as IELTS or other formal, academic English tests). Instead, you can try to use more formal language if you are confident in your ability to do so.

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What about “you”?

One last thing: While it is acceptable to use personal pronouns, you should probably avoid the second-person pronoun, “you.” In English, we often use it in everyday speech but it is definitely considered a feature of very casual language. It has no place in an academic essay. Therefore, you should not say:

  • When you are looking for a new job, you should consider not only the starting salary but also how much you would like working at this new place.

Instead, you might consider using more formal language like this:

  • When looking for a new job, one should consider not only the starting salary but also the level of job satisfaction one is likely to receive in this new place.

The second example has dropped one “you” and replaced two others with “one,” which is a more academic expression. There was also a slight change to make “how much you would like working” with a better expression: job satisfaction. These changes would tell the examiner that you have the skill to change your English according to particular situations, and it may result in a better score.

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