“I believe that anyone who has committed a crime as serious as murder…”

Here’s a nice emphatic opening for a sentence. And my student has offered The Irrefutable Evidence to support her yet-to-come thesis: “I believe.” (It is the bookend to The Irrefutable Refutation: “I think not.”)

Students have a tough time with that first-person pronoun and its relationship to an essay. Some have learned that “Never use ‘I'” is a hard-and-fast rule, and so they get into all kinds of tangles avoiding it, especially in autobiographical essays (where “I” is appropriate because it refers to the material, not the writer qua writer).

Some have learned that having a personal voice is important in writing, and they personalize by using “I” every chance they get.

And then there are the many, many students who seem unable to write without “I think” or “I believe” or (oh, dear) “It is my opinion that…,” no matter how many ways I try to communicate the idea that an essay is, by definition, what the writer thinks, and one reason documentation is so important is that it identifies those things someone other than the writer thinks. Some still insist on using those phrases in order to indicate to their readers that the idea that follows may not be the only idea and the student is humble enough to know it. We spend class time identifying other ways the writer can provide this room-for-disagreement or room-for-wiser-heads: adverbs like “probably,” “possibly,” “perhaps,” “evidently”; verbs like “seems,” “appears,” “may be,” “suggests,” “implies”; adjectives like “some,” “many”; and other strategies. Still, in comes the next batch of papers, laden with “I think” and “I believe” (not to mention a few “I think not”s).

This student seems to be using “I believe” to add fervor and importance, though: a nice ringing opening. (Insert here a chorus of “I Believe For Every Drop of Rain That Falls.” Of course that’s a song about faith, and faith has no place in a logical argument….)

And now for the rest of the sentence, where appears the thesis for which this opening prepares:

“I believe that anyone who has committed a crime as serious as murder is no doubt guilty.”


What did she think she was saying? Could she be echoing former Attorney General Ed Meese, who famously observed that anyone who was arrested for a crime was pretty sure to be guilty? I hope no student of mine would have that kind of blind faith in anything, including or especially the infallibility of the police. Or was she trying to say that someone guilty of murder was really GUILTY, guilty in a worse-than-usual way, guilty of something bad enough for a really big punishment? Oh, and guilty beyond the famous shadow: “no doubt.”

The opening prepares the reader for something profound or particularly significant, while all the student actually wants to say is that someone who has committed a crime has committed a crime. Now, there’s a controversial thesis for you! She can’t live up to the fanfare of that “I believe.” And because she began so importantly, what follows is not only a circular sentence: it is a ridiculously circular sentence. VERY much ado about nothing.

P.S. I apologize for sticking that song into your consciousness. You may take consolation in knowing that I have also stuck it into mine.

P.P.S. This Horror seems somehow fitting for the first day of the new dispensation in the State of Connecticut: we have joined the civilized nations and a growing number of civilized states in abolishing the death penalty. I believe that anyone who has committed a crime as serious as murder deserves to keep his or her life in order to serve a long, long, long prison sentence, during which he or she will have the opportunity to think about just how serious it is. But if I were writing an essay about it, I wouldn’t use that belief as my evidence: like a good attorney, I would use evidence as evidence. And that’s not a circular sentence.


About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

2 responses to ““I believe that anyone who has committed a crime as serious as murder…”

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