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When Should You Use “It”?

Last week, I was a bit surprised at the attention received by one of my posts from the middle of October, Get Rid of “It” (and other vague words).  The post was submitted to Reddit, and received a somewhat controversial rating.  The ratings were mostly positive, but the comments were somewhat less so, indicating that (perhaps) my message hadn’t gotten completely across.

On the positive side, I think that article received the most comments any of my articles has received.  Thanks to all the Reddit commenters who took the time to say why they agreed or disagreed with me!

I’m not writing this post directly to those commenters, but I do think it is important to respond to the flaw pointed out by the comments.  As one commenter pointed out, general rules may hurt writers if the writer doesn’t understand when to break the rule.  I felt I should clarify my message to help all writers who read this blog.

I think the major reason that the Reddit commenters disagreed with my post was that I went a bit too far with the selection of my title.  When I said, “Get Rid of ‘It’,” I was referring (mostly) to the overuse of “it” in many new writers’ work.  As a few Reddit commenters (correctly) pointed out, “it” is a perfectly good word, if used carefully.

My intention is not to eliminate the word “it” from the English language. However, writers need to be careful to balance the convenience of “it” with the vagueness “it” introduces.  New writers tend to use “it” too often in their work, which makes understanding their intended meaning difficult.

Many writers use “it” as a crutch. Instead of thinking about the concept a writer desires to convey, many beginning writers throw in the word “it” to shorten their writing, but this puts the burden of figuring out the message on the reader.  Taking a bit more effort to clarify your message can save your readers a lot of time.

Speaking of saving time, let’s get to the main event.  When should you use “it”?

Use “it” to refer to an object that has no gender:

The bookcase was lovely, its oaken shelves a beautiful shade of brown.

The water bottle let out a sharp hiss as I squeezed its trigger, water spraying out in a narrow stream.

Use “it” to refer to an event (in the examples, “It” refers to the weather):

It was a blustery day in the Hundred Acre Woods.

It was a dark and stormy night.

Use “it” when you can substitute any number of things and still make the sentence true:

Forget about it, it will never happen.

It will be a cold day in Hell when that happens.

Use “it” when the surrounding context makes the meaning clear:

We loved that restaurant.  Its food was delicious, its atmosphere was pleasant, and its waiters were always prompt.

Can we continue this conversation later?  I’d really love for Janice to hear it.

Also, while we’re talking about “it,” let’s also get one commonly confused thing straight:

Its color was green.  It’s standing still.

In other words, “its” implies ownership or a characteristic of something.  “It’s” is used only to refer to “It is” or “It has.”

Writing is an art, and the use of “it” is no different. Deciding to use “it” in a particular case depends on your goals as a writer–you’re making a choice between clarity and vagueness, or wordiness and brevity.  The right place to use “it” is (unfortunately) often a judgment call.  “It” is a perfectly good word, when a writer carefully considers when to use “it”.

Happy writing!

Related Post: Get Rid of “It” (and other vague words)

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