“In my own opinion I think that…”

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:

  1. “I don’t want to sound like a know-it-all.”
  2. “I want the reader to know I really mean it.”
  3. “I want to show that I’m not using any sources, that I myself think this.”
  4. “I know there are other opinions.”
  5. “I think I’m right, but I don’t know.
  6. “This is a thesis, not a fact.”
  7. “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.

Doesn’t help.

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.

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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

4 responses to ““In my own opinion I think that…”

  • Orange (a/k/a David)

    I see where you’re coming from for the kind of writing you’re reading: pieces that are intended to represent opinions, well-thought out and supported, but still opinions.

    Does this same “in my opinion” phrase work for more conversational writing? As in, “You said X is seriously wrong. In my opinion, that’s looking at the wrong part of the problem.” In a discussion, it seems to serve as a signifier of contrast. I guess I could say, “You said X. You are wrong. It’s Y.” That somehow seems less polite. I like the softening nature of the phrase when it comes from a real or imagined discussion. To be fair, my prior sentence, under my rules, could have easily started with the suspect phrase and, I admit, looked stupid.

  • Mary Jane Schaefer

    Many years ago, almost in the realm of myth (I think), that is to say: when I was young, I had a roommate who was theoretically but not actually educated. I liked her. I had left in our common living space a book I was
    reading, poems by Catullus, with the Latin on one side and the translation (which I desperately needed) on the other. She picked it up and read the poem he had written to his mistress after she had had an abortion. And my roommate said, “My God, they were just like us.” And I was so touched
    by her wonder. Sappho, too, can trigger this. And it’s always wonderful. And while I’m chatting here, am I the only one who thinks that Mary Renault is incredible in her ability to bring the Ancient World to life? And now it’s Steven Saylor?

  • RAB

    I agree re Renault.
    Yes, my students this year in World Lit I were taken that way, with Sappho and also with early Egyptian poets. They couldn’t get over how “modern” the poems seemed, how close to their own emotional lives. Beautiful.

  • RAB

    Orange: yes, I think it ought to work with dialogue and other conversational writing too. I rarely say “In my opinion.” I start a LOT of sentences with “But…” or “It seems to me,” and sometimes “I think,” but usually the information that I’m offering an opposing point of view is in the content and the tone more than in introlductory phrases. But yes, I’m teaching argument-writing and academic writing, and there there’s no place for all the “I think”s.
    Now, in a piece of fiction, if I had a character who wasn’t sure of herself, or who was easily muddled, I’d make MAJOR use of “I think” and “Well, in my opinion, which is only my opinion…” You’re absolutely right that the kind of writing and the kind of audience determine what’s appropriate and what isn’t.

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