What a cute little, two-letter word. Small but mighty, it can mean everything yet nothing at all. A go-to word for authors of every classification, genre, style, size, platform, etc. of writing, it shows up everywhere like your shadow.
Using it in a sentence isn’t necessarily grammatically incorrect or unacceptable by any seemingly formidable literary entity (usually referred to as “they”) that makes rules that, for some strange reason, authors blindly follow.
However, it is a blah word. Using it in your prose often and frivolously creates vague, feeble writing that renders your compositions less enjoyable and/or effective.
#1. The Nebulous It
Dammit! The click of Carolyn Waterton’s Louboutin heels echoed down the hundred-year-old courthouse hallway. It was never a good sign when both the backwoods judge and hayseed prosecutor were late. It could shred what little confidence this fresh-out-of-Yale-Law attorney had. They’re probably swapping stories and smoking stogies on a dilapidated back porch somewhere in this Godforsaken town.
Here, each it refers to something different. The first one is vague, referring to nothing concrete, which is an acceptable form, i.e., “used to represent an inanimate thing understood, previously mentioned, about to be mentioned, or present in the immediate context).* (Sometimes called a dummy pronoun.) The second it relates to how the men’s lateness affects Carolyn.
Now, to be fair, the author used it correctly in both cases. However, forcing it to carry the burden of conveying sentence meaning rather than looking for a superior word or rewriting the passage to read accurately is settling for hamburger when you could have filet mignon.
Dammit! The click of Carolyn Waterton’s Louboutin heels echoed down the hundred-year-old courthouse hallway. Not good. Both the backwoods judge and hayseed prosecutor were late. Why not shred what little confidence this fresh-out-of-Yale-Law attorney has? They’re probably swapping stories and smoking stogies on a dilapidated back porch somewhere in this Godforsaken town.
#2. The Because-It’s-There It
How does it wind up in writing over and over again? Because we like to use the ambiguous little pronoun in speech all the time. However, it doesn’t always translate well in written pose. (Tee-hee. See what I did there?)
When Paula and Jade hid the wrecked car, it meant they hid evidence.
By hiding the wrecked car, Paula and Jade concealed evidence.
#3. The Lazy It
Authors often forget readers are novel readers not mind readers. Writers assume their readers will know exactly who or what they’re referring to in the sentence (or the next one). “Yeah, I could rewrite it,” the I’d-Rather-Settle-For-Good-Instead-Of-Great Author said, shrugging her shoulders, “but why?”
The jury reached an agreement on the teacher’s penalty, but it took a long time.
Does it refer to the jury, agreement, or the decision-making process?
The jury reached an agreement on the teacher’s penalty, but the process took a long time.
#4. The Grammar No-No It
Connie was shy, but she kept it well-hidden.
The sentence doesn’t “sound” incorrect and isn’t confusing, right? However, if your work falls into the hands of a Grammar Nazi, you’re busted. It must refer to a noun, and shy is an adjective. Pronouns can only refer to nouns.
Connie kept her shyness well-hidden.
Take that, Grammar Nazis!
#5. The One-Is-Good, Many-Must-Be-Great It
A comprehensive, complicated benefit package encourages employees to ignore offerings no matter how rewarding as confusion breeds avoidance. However, it only takes a minute to ask your department head to clarify the company’s position on it before it is implemented into company policy and you enforce it (should you feel it your duty to do so).
Yes, this is an actual passage recently published in a non-fiction book on Human Resource policies. Wow! Five its in only one l-o-n-g sentence. Two serve as vague references (dummy pronouns), and three allude to the company’s benefit package (I think.). Yeah, it goes without saying: rewrite, Rewrite, REWRITE!
Confusing breeds avoidance. A comprehensive, complicated benefit package only encourages employees to ignore offerings, no matter how rewarding. Ask your department head to clarify the company’s position on the bundle before implementation and enforcement.
Honestly, I don’t know if we fixed any of the inherent perplexity, but we did get rid of the confusing its. Let’s call it a victory.
#6. The Dull It
It combined with is, was, or were at the beginning of a sentence is a pet peeve of mine.
It was dark as Victor stepped into the street and waited.
By placing the important information toward the end of the sentence, an author strips his/her prose of energy.
Victor stepped into the dark street and waited.
What its are acceptable?
✓ The First-Draft It… Use the word whenever you want to ensure you keep your mind burning and churning to throw down your creative thoughts. You can go back later and fix the its up.
✓ The Dialogue It… Use the word in there because that’s how we speak. One caveat: If your character is well-educated and/or a snotty person, he or she would probably not use it in their speech.
✓ The Don’t-Bother It… Use the word when rewriting the sentence to eliminate it creates confusing instead of clarification.
Got it? (Sorry, I couldn’t control myself.)