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I found a new job in London and while emailing with my soon-to-be boss, I noticed something that drove me off: the constant repetition of the pronoun I. This is very different from my native language (Italian) and most of the time, sounds and reads awful to me. So I started to check online for explanations, but all I could find was people saying that using it or omitting it is up to me. But I'm still not satisfied enough.

In Italian, for example, one would say:

Ho scritto del codice, sono andato a pranzo e poi ho fatto la doccia.

where there is not a single occurrence the first-person singular pronoun.

The English translation is straightforward (and omitting the pronoun is easy to undestand), being this just a sequence of operations:

I wrote some code, had lunch, then took a shower

The problem starts when I'm trying to be formal or technical (I'm a computer programmer): I'm not sure if I'm using the pronoun too much or not. This whole question is a nice example: I could have written this in italian without using the pronoun once.

The following bit is from an email I sent to London:

I should be able to tell you (I hope) on Friday or Monday (both bosses are still out of office) and I'm trying to push this as fast as I can.

I had to use the pronoun I four times in a single sentence. Is this happening because my knowledge of the language is limited, or just because I'm not yet completely used to it in my daily life?

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migrated from english.stackexchange.com Jan 18 '13 at 15:37

This question came from our site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts.

Oh, ok thanks :) Is the downvote because of this? I'm going to use this board a lot in the next months, so I want to know if I'm asking correct questions here :) – Samuele Mattiuzzo Jan 18 '13 at 13:57
Someone must have down voted because this is considered off-topic on this site. I voted for migration to writers, instead. I strongly suggest that you involve actively on both ELU as well as writers. Before posting your next question, visit the FAQ (see link at the top of this page), read all the sections and earn yourself a badge! – Kris Jan 18 '13 at 14:00
Migrated here as per discussion between mods on both sites. – Neil Fein Jan 18 '13 at 16:08
@NeilFein thanks – Samuele Mattiuzzo Jan 18 '13 at 16:11
For what it's worth, you could edit your sentence like this: I hope to be able to tell you on Friday or Monday. I'm trying to push this as fast as possible, but both bosses are still out of office. (You'd be down to two I pronouns.) – JLG Jan 18 '13 at 17:51
up vote 3 down vote accepted

There's nothing unusual about using 'I' four times in a sentence as you have done, and you can't really avoid it.

(You didn't ask about it, but you need to say 'out of the office', and that piece of information might be better in a separate sentence.)

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So I'm chasing a rule that doesn't exist, correct? If italian and english are so different and the "overuse" can't be avoided, I'm fine with it and I'll wait a couple of months to get fully acquainted with it! Edit: almost forgot to thank you for your hint too – Samuele Mattiuzzo Jan 18 '13 at 13:46
Yes, there is no rule of grammar about the number of times you can use a pronoun in a sentence. It's a matter of judgement, but most of the time there is no problem. – Barrie England Jan 18 '13 at 13:48
Thanks, this really is enough for me! – Samuele Mattiuzzo Jan 18 '13 at 13:49
That word does seem to creep in a lot when talking to customers. Rather unfortunate that is indeed, I do constantly find myself rephrasing emails so that at the very least it's not the first word in every other sentence. Same as "that" in technical documentation methinks... anyway, thanks for bringing it up. – Magnus Jan 18 '13 at 14:05
In Italian, leaving out pronouns is common (as it is in many other languages with very informative verb inflection, e.g. Spanish). That is, the information about who performs the action is embedded into the verb. As such, when a pronoun is used in those languages, it is often done for emphasis. On the other hand, English has impoverished verbal inflection and so the pronoun provides key information and can only rarely be left out. Since you are a native speaker of Italian, hearing the pronoun so often probably sounds much more significant to you than it does to a native English speaker. – Kosmonaut Jan 18 '13 at 14:43

Pronouns can be heavily used more readily than other words, because the smaller and more common a word is, the less it "stands out". Readers of English are used to I repeating a lot in first-person writing, because it's appropriate to such expression - the weak inflection means the information other languages would express in the form of the verb requires a noun or pronoun in English. So it isn't a problem.

Compare your original (with one fix):

I should be able to tell you (I hope) on Friday or Monday (both bosses are still out of the office) and I'm trying to push this as fast as I can.


The sentinel should be able to tell you (the sentinel hopes) on Friday or Monday (both bosses are still out of the office) and the sentinel is trying to push this as fast as the sentinel can.

Now, that's still perfectly grammatical, but it is pretty strange. The reason is that the long and relatively rare word sentinel is more striking so its repetition is jarring. Unless we wanted this jarring for effect, we would avoid it.

The main way that we would avoid it, is to use pronouns:

The sentinel should be able to tell you (he hopes) on Friday or Monday (both bosses are still out of the office) and he is trying to push this as fast as he can.

He, like I bears much more repetition.

(Incidentally said and asked bear vast repetition easily. Trying to avoid them by substituting other words on the other hand, leads to tiring "said bookism").

If I was to pick any point of style for criticism in the sentence, it would be that parentheses are worth avoiding.

I hope to be able to tell you on Friday or Monday. Both bosses are still out of the office, and I'm trying to push this as fast as I can.

To keep things a matter of a series of thoughts, rather than detours into parenthetical thoughts from which the reader has to return. That said, I probably only noticed at all, because my own writing tends to overuse parentheses a lot, so I'm used to looking for where they can be removed because my own first-drafts tend to need it more than other people's.

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To some extent, previous answers are correct in saying that pronouns can, should, or must be used frequently. The idea that they can't be avoided is wrong. One can reword the present example as below. [I excluded the phrase “(both bosses are still out of office)” as not relevant to the example.]

I should be able to tell you (I hope) on Friday or Monday, and I'm trying to push this as fast as I can →
I may be able to tell you on Friday or Monday; I'm pushing this along as fast as can be.

Rewording “I should X (I hope)” as “I may X” seems reasonable; rewording “as fast as I can” as “as fast as can be” , less so. Because the phrase “I'm pushing this along as fast as I can” may be slightly too informal or slangy for a business email, and because the information it supplies should be a given, you could just drop it, leaving

I may be able to tell you on Friday or Monday.

You can include the “both bosses are still out of the office” information without parentheses:

I may be able to tell you on Friday or Monday; some bosses are away at present.

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I don't know anything about Italian, but many languages have the pronoun "built in" to the verb. There are different forms of the verb for when it is first person than for when it is second person than for when it is third person. In such cases, the pronoun is only needed in special cases or for emphasis. But in English the pronoun is not built into the verb in most cases, so you must explicitly include it.

As Jon Hanna says, English pronouns are short and people don't tend to perceive them as overused even when repeated many times in a sentence. Not to say that you shouldn't eliminate repeated pronouns when possible.

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I think part of the problem you're having here is that many of the Romance languages can include the first singular pronoun I as part of the verb. E.g in Spanish Yo como pan, (I eat bread) can also be written as simply como pan (I eat bread) without the use of Yo.

English doesn't work like that and you cannot include the pronoun I as part of a verb, you have to say it each time you want to use the first person singular pronoun I. I eat bread, I ran home, I drove to work, I had lunch etc.

In your example you could have removed one of them, (hopefully would mean the same as I hope) but that's up to you:

I should be able to tell you (hopefully) on Friday or Monday (both bosses are still out of the office) and I'm trying to push this as fast as I can.

I wouldn't concern yourself with the number of times you're using the first person singular pronoun as English has no way of incorporating it into verbs as you're used to. Which is probably why it feels strange to you.

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