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Posts Tagged ‘it’

When Should You Use “It”?

Monday, November 9th, 2009

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)

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

Monday, October 19th, 2009

Have you ever had trouble expressing your message clearly?

I certainly have.

What can we do as writers to help our readers understand our message?

Get rid of “it,” for starters.  Not the message, of course, but the word “it” itself.  Like the Knights who say Ni, “it” is a word that a writer should not use.

“It” is perhaps the most ambiguous word in the entire English language.  “It” can be a monkey, a skill, a xylophone, or any number of other concepts that can be found in the dictionary.

The next time you write something (a comment in response to this post?), try looking through your work and replace the word “it” with the concept you’re truly trying to capture.

Alternatively, choose one of your already written works and scan through for instances of “it”.  If you’re like me, when you’re writing, you tend to naturally use “it” in the course of writing stories or articles.  However, by using “it,” you are robbing your readers of your true meaning.

Read the following sentence (borrowed from a story I wrote recently in response to a writing prompt):

It was just too early…we’d barely gotten to know each other, and while we’d been so similar at first, we couldn’t have had more different ideologies in raising a family.

The sentence seems just fine, but there is a way to improve.  Rewording the sentence to eliminate “it” results in a clearer message:

The pregnancy had come too early…we’d barely gotten to know each other, and while we’d been so similar at first, we couldn’t have had more different ideologies in raising a family.

Which of the two sentences is more clear?  In the first, a reader is left questioning what “it” is, even at the end…is “it” a marriage?  Two people moving in together?  A pregnancy?

The second sentence is more clear–the reader understands immediately what the author intended.

When editing your work, try to eliminate “it”.  I aim to have no usage of the word “it” in my writing (with the exception of this post, of course!).  Other words I look for and try to avoid:

  • it, thing, stuff — Replace  the vague term with a more accurate noun
  • very, extremely, really — Eliminate, or, if I want to stress some particular aspect of a verb or noun, choose a more explicit adverb or adjective, or rephrase the sentence.  For example, instead of “extremely difficult”, I might say “difficult”, “complex” or “laborious”, depending on what aspect I want to emphasize.
  • was, am, are — Choose a more specific verb or phrase.  For example, instead of “I was excited,” a better choice might be “Excited, I <performed some action>”

In general, if I can think of a more specific word that still applies, I use the more specific word instead of a vague one.

Okay, so if “it” is such a bad word, why does it exist? “It” certainly has its place–for example, when an object has no gender (such as the example in this sentence).

In this case, we have to be vague…if there is no term to describe the object, you may have no choice but to use the word “it.”  However, in most cases, you can remove “it” from your sentences.

Writing clearly is one of the most challenging jobs that a writer has.  Following this simple strategy of eliminating vague terms will help us to write more clearly.

Happy writing!

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