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It's lazy, that's why

It’s lazy, that’s why --  Overuse of indefinite pronoun muddies communication.
By Penney Kome

It’s the introduction to half the articles I receive. It’s supposed to be teasing, tantalizing, an invitation to explore its mysteries. In fact, it’s just annoying to me, and (I venture) to most readers.

I’m talking about the overuse of the pronoun “it” as the subject of a sentence. Not only is the pronoun vague and lacking any previous reference, the style is actually a version of passive voice writing, which puts the subject of the sentence at the very end. As Heywood Brown wrote, “Backwards rolled the sentences until reeled the mind.”  

Let me give some examples, drawn at random from articles available online today. Mark Weisbrot commented on Hilary Clinton’s speech with an opening paragraph that includes:

“...What could America’s top diplomat hope to accomplish with this kind of inflammatory rhetoric? It seems unlikely that the goal was to support human rights in Iran. Because of the United States’ history in Iran and in the region, it tends to give legitimacy to repression...” [Emphasis mine.]


The  “it” in the first sentence makes the “it” in the last sentence totally confusing, even though I’ve included the preceding sentence, which actually does refer back to a noun of sorts (“rhetoric”).

Here’s a snip from Adam Radwanski at the Globe & Mail: “It was only a matter of time. Even when he’s in your caucus, it’s hard to keep Gerard Kennedy on message... So it was all but inevitable...”  http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/with-friends-like-kennedy-m...

Aw, come on. When a pundit wants to say, “I told you so”, then maybe the honest method is to say something like, “Many observers wondered how long Gerard Kennedy would toe the line...”

And in the same edition of the Globe, Caroline Alphonso used the the teaser approach to open a story about H1N1: “Its worldwide spread could not be stopped. It infected and killed thousands, pushing countries to rush to develop a vaccine that would limit its reach....” http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/qa-with-gregory-hartl/article1...

Really? The virus “pushed countries” to develop a vaccine? Perhaps people responded to a factor not directly named here: the threat. Not the flu, but the threat, led to mass vaccinations. That’s “it”.  

I don’t mean to pick on any of the writers here. They’re examples chosen at random from recent news sources. They’re following the current style, which is to start a sentence with “It’s about”, and then think through the idea while writing it out – or while talking, say, in front of a camera.  “It” is broadcast-speak.

Still, the all-purpose “it” also creeps over from corporate speak, where people can say, “It has been determined...” with a straight face, rather than, “A carefully selected group of us have decided...”  Part of the formal, judicial face, the institutional “it” serves to obscure who is speaking or acting.

“It” is a seductively convenient shorthand.  The problem, of course, is that “it” can mean so many different things. That’s why “it” is acceptable in spoken and informal language, where a wink or a nod can convey a great deal about what “it” is. On paper, not so much -- except maybe between close friends.    

Indeed, the beauty and the peril of “it”, is that “it” can mean almost anything that the reader wants. A reader can read “Me media” by interpreting or putting a personal spin on what “it” means – just as I did with the flu story.

Writers! Readers! – please try this exercise. Take a page from recent work, and circle the word “it” every time it appears.  You just might be astonished to realize the extent to which writers have come to lean on this hapless ambiguous pronoun.

For every “it”, there is a poor neglected noun somewhere that could strengthen our prose and enlighten the text. Too often, there’s a puzzled reader too.

Brainstorming, tossing ideas around is a great way to get started writing – you don’t need to be too specific. Let “it” help you think things through, by all means. But in a perfect world, writers would be paid enough to be able to take time to go back and replace every “it” with a more meaningful word, before an audience sees the result.