Student writers never get tired of writing these two phrases.
I’ve had the chance to ask what the phrases mean, or why they are needed. Here are some answers:
- “I don’t want to sound like a know-it-all.”
- “I want the reader to know I really mean it.”
- “I want to show that I’m not using any sources, that I myself think this.”
- “I know there are other opinions.”
- “I think I’m right, but I don’t know.“
- “This is a thesis, not a fact.”
- “The sentence sounded kind of rude without it.”
Here’s what I say: “Every essay begins with two invisible words: ‘I think…’ If you then write those words, you’re saying to the reader ‘I think I think…,’ or ‘I think it’s my opinion that….'” Several times I’ve even asked the students to write those words in capital letters after the heading of their paper so they wouldn’t feel compelled to write them in the essay itself.
The phrase/clause is even more ridiculous when followed by something that is provably or obviously true—as in today’s example:
“In my own opinion I think that once again Sappho is talking about something or someone.”
Most writers write about things or people whenever they write. Sappho clearly falls into this category, even though so much of what we have of hers is fragmentary. No poems celebrating generalized abstractions or undefined emotions. She more or less takes my students’ collective breath away, in fact, particularly because they’re surprised to recognize real emotions of their own in these “old” texts.
So why would my student bother to make this silly statement? To be fair, I know what he probably meant. If he had only added one more word before ending his sentence—the word “specific”—he would have been fine. We do discuss the fact that poets, like writers of fiction, often construct characters, or embody ideas in fictional people, for literary purposes; that “I” in a poem is no more definitely the poet herself than “I” in a short story is the writer rather than a narrator. And here my student is trying to say, I believe, that Sappho seems to we writing of or to actual, specific people, about actual, specific events, rather than creating poetic situations. IF that’s what my student meant, I applaud him for recognizing the immediacy and urgency of the images, the circumstances, the carefully delineated emotions in her work.
But, as is always my lament, he didn’t say what he meant; he said something else, or at least something less. He said something so self-evident as to strike the reader as completely unnecessary, completely obvious—to evoke in the reader either the classic laugh or the PoMo “Well, Duh.”
And the “once again” suggests that this writing-about-something is a habit of hers. There she goes again.
Combine that with the rest of the sentence and this is what you get: “I’m not sure, and I don’t want to sound like a know-it-all about this, but it seems to me that Sappho is falling into that old habit of hers of writing about something. But others may disagree.”
For people who are so VERY certain of most of their judgments and notions, students can turn into shaking aspens and shrinking violets and sensitive plants when asked to commit their thoughts to paper.