Certain phrases cannot be credibly uttered by the young. There other examples, but I’m going to focus on the phrase, “I have always x”, as in, “I have always thought that solitude was the most important part of life”, or “I have always been afraid of saying good-bye.” With certain exceptions, I find the use of this phrase by someone young (say, under the age of 50) repellant. That probably seems like an overreaction to you; it certainly does to me. Why should I react so strongly to a completely innocent statement of personal, subjective fact? I think it is because I detect in this statement a sort of epistemological usurpation of rightful authority. Let me explain what I mean.

What is the purpose of saying “I have always x” or “I have always thought x” rather than just saying “I x” or “I think x”? Why is “always” added? We use this phrase to identify some point of our personality or behavior that has remained invariant over time and is therefore worth particular regard because it has remained unchanged despite experiences which could have changed it. What we really mean when we say, “I have always x” is something like “I have thought or done this for a very long time, and I continue to believe that it is the correct thing to think or do even as my experience with the world grows.” The phrase only has power if we regard behavior and belief as species of hypothesis which we continually test by bringing them into contact with the world. Just like anything falsifiable, the more attempts at disproof our hypotheses survive, the more worthy they are of belief.

That’s why a 5 year old exclaiming, “I have always liked coffee!” gets a chuckle. His “always” defines “temporary” on the human scale. Eternity is funny in the mouth of babes. However, if this same child were to say at the age of 15 that they had always hated mayonnaise, well, that’s fair enough. A 10-15 year track record of hating mayonnaise does carry some weight and it would be mean of us to order a sandwich containing mayonnaise for the kid. Because someone with limited experience can have a meaningful track record of hating a condiment, we don’t find this statement laughable. It is a simple thing to dislike. As the complexity of x increases, so too does the minimum age of the person who can credibly use the phrase, “I have always x.” A young person cannot (or very likely does not) have a meaningful track record of contemplating very complex or abstract, phenomena like solitude, loneliness, departure, separation, adultery, pain, anxiety, etc.

This is why I find the statement so offensive in the wrong mouth. From the wrong source, “I have always x” is an attempted (at least rhetorical) usurpation of long experience’s legitimate authority.

From the standpoint of college essay writing, it is important to notice this because of what the unwary usage of the phrase signals about its source, namely a lack of self-awareness. When a 5 year old says, “I have always liked TV”, it’s cute. The 5 year old isn’t expected to know that he is too young to speak in this way. When a 17 year old says, “I have always fought for human rights”, he, at a minimum, reveals that he is unconscious of how he sounds. The 17 year-old isn’t expected to know much, but he is just old enough to know that he isn’t wise. If you want to convince someone that you’re awesome, you should demonstrate a minimum of self-awareness. Avoid sending signals to the contrary.
I have always deplored the phrase. And you should too.

Justin Shelby