Marcia Riefer Johnston is the author of Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them). She invites you to join her weekly game, Tighten This!, on her website: Writing.Rocks.
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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.”
Consider these its:
- When we updated that feature in the app, we messed it up. (We messed up…the feature? Or the app?)
- 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. (OK, 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.