Do Your Readers a Favor: Cut “It” Out

pronoun-it-unclear-antecedent

Want a timeless, painless tip that quickly helps you clarify your writing? Look for it.

What William Cobbett said two centuries ago still rings true:

The word it is the greatest troubler that I know of in language. It is so small, and so convenient, that few are careful enough in using it. Writers seldom spare this word. Whenever they are at a loss … they clap in an it … contrary to the laws of Grammar and of sense. (A Grammar of the English Language, Oxford University Press, 2003 edition, orig. 1819, p. 96.)

If Cobbett were alive today, he would have as much cause as ever to complain that “our poor oppressed it” leads to a “constellation of obscurities” (p. 97). And he would have good company. One modern professor says, “Unclear pronouns are particularly dangerous with the pronoun it.” Bryan A. Garner, with characteristically subtle playfulness, lays down the advice this way (on page 533 of the fourth edition of Garner’s Modern English Usage): “Delete it when you can; and if you need it, keep it to one meaning within a sentence.

Examples

Consider these its:

  • When we updated that feature in the app, we messed it up. (We messed up … the feature? Or the app? English teachers would say that this it has an unclear antecedent; you can’t tell what the it stands for.)
  • Take the gyroscope out of the device, and fix it. (Fix … the gyroscope? Or the device?)
  • For anyone who has used this CMS, it’s obvious that it’s not easy to learn. (These two its do not “keep to one meaning.” The first it is an expletive it, or filler it; the second it is a pronoun standing in for the CMS.)
  • Although the company made a profit, it made poor use of it. (Okay, you figured out which it was which. That’s the point. You had to figure them out.)

Used thoughtlessly, as in these examples, it leaves readers confused at worst and, at best, erodes their attention by making them work to extract accurate meaning.

A Modern Twist on This Tip

If Cobbett could have foreseen word processing, he might have recommended that writers make a habit of searching for it.

unclear-antecedent-pronoun-it

I can almost hear him urging us to ask ourselves, in each instance, is this it clear? Will readers struggle here, even momentarily, to figure out what the sentence means?

How to Fix It

Any time you discover a problematic it in your writing—an it that leaves readers scratching their heads or that simply slows them down—consider these suggestions from a blog post that Cobbett would surely have approved of. Let’s work with this example sentence from above: Although the company made a profit, it made poor use of it.

  • Replace it with a noun: Although the company made a profit, it made poor use of the money.
  • Combine two sentence parts into a single statement: The company made a profit but made poor use of it.
  • Add a noun before which or that: The company made a profit—money that it, unfortunately, made poor use of.

Don’t bother memorizing these fixes. Do this one thing: look at it. Pay attention to this one little word. The more attention you give it, the more clear, effective, and accurate your text will become.

Conclusion

In the post “Avoid Vague Pronoun References,” Sam Corbett sums it up—I mean, sums up the problem—in words that could have come from Cobbett:

Just because you (the writer) know to what noun your pronoun is referring doesn’t mean that it is clear to the reader. One major goal of mature writers is cultivating a writing style that privileges clarity. Vague pronoun usage detracts from … momentum … and, at the same time, causes confusion for your reader.

So cut it out whenever you can. Your readers won’t thank you. They’ll simply understand.

This post originally appeared on the Grammar Girl blog May 19, 2016.

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