Define "It" to Strengthen Your Writing

Have you ever been engrossed in a great story and suddenly stopped short to ask yourself what the writer is referring to when “it” appears? Here’s an example:

“Sue and Mary found six dresses to try. It fit and was in her price range.”

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What is “it,” exactly? In the context of the sentence above, “it” is used as a pronoun, and illustrates a common (and avoidable) writer mistake:

Undefined pronouns

A quick grammar review: Pronouns are a useful part of speech that give writers greater flexibility in naming schemes. Instead of using and reusing a noun, the substitution of a pronoun allows for a type of shorthand. For example, instead of writing, “The moment John walk into the store, John realized John had forgotten John’s wallet at home” (pretty clunky, huh?), this sentence becomes, “The moment John walked into the store, he realized he had forgotten his wallet at home.”

Personal pronouns are fairly straightforward. Most of us use I, he, she, they, him, her, them, his, hers, and theirs properly . . . but “it” often present unique problems for writers.

The Problem with “It”

When I edit manuscripts, I usually see two different but related problems with the use of “it”:

  1. The pronoun “it” does not relate to the antecedent
  2. The pronoun “it” is part of vague sentence construction.

In plain English, the first problem is using a pronoun that is ambiguous or doesn’t refer to a specific noun. Example:

 Although the pizza delivery van ran into the school bus, it was not damaged.

Does “it” represent the pizza delivery van or the school bus? We just can’t tell by this sentence construction. The pronoun doesn’t clearly relate to the antecedent.

Vague sentence construction and the indefinite use of “it” often calls for a sentence revision. Here’s an example of a common use that creates a weak sentence:

“Mary wondered if it was something about the energy of young people that animals pick up and want to be around.”

When “it” is combined with a form of the verb “to be,” take a closer look to see if there might be a better way to construct your sentence:

“Mary wondered if animals pick up on the energy of young people and want to be around it.”

In the above example, “it” stands in for “the energy of young people.” Or you can restructure the sentence to eliminates “it” completely.

 “Mary wondered if the energy of young people was something animals pick up and want to be around.”

When self-editing your work, remember to add “it” to your list of words and terms to search and possibly replace. You don’t need to avoid this pronoun, but use “it” wisely and properly, and consider whether your sentence could be stronger and clearer by avoiding “it.”

Undefined pronouns are a common (and avoidable) writer mistake. #writetip #editingtip #grammar Share on X

Happy Writing, Candace

This is an updated version of a blog that appeared in September, 2013.


For more great writing and publishing information, check out my Facebook page at Change It Up Editing and Writing Services, where I share all kinds of interesting articles and links.


Candace Johnson is a professional freelance editor, proofreader, writer, ghostwriter, and writing coach who has worked with traditional publishers, self-published authors, and independent book packagers on nonfiction subjects ranging from memoirs to alternative medical treatments to self-help, and on fiction ranging from romance to paranormal. As an editorial specialist, Candace is passionate about offering her clients the opportunity to take their work to the next level. She believes in maintaining an author’s unique voice while helping him or her create and polish every sentence to make it the best it can be.

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9 thoughts on “Define "It" to Strengthen Your Writing”

  1. Great suggestions here for writers…..specific words are always the best, and to me, what makes good writing great is the positioning of descriptive words in different ways. In other terms, rearrange your sentence structure throughout your composition, using the same or similar descriptive words or terminologies. It keeps the reader on track, yet makes for a much more compelling piece of writing. Hey, I’m no expert, but I am a PhD student in Communications Technology, and I have had professors tell me that I can write better than they can. I also am the editor for my particular cohort, and I really believe that if some people would just allow themselves a little more time to write something, the quality of their compositions would definitely improve. When I write a paper, I write it, then (ideally) I put it aside for a day or two. When I go back to it again, I realize how much better it could be, in terms of framework, grammar, sentence structure, and flow. In my humble opinion here, of course… works wonders for me in grad school!

    1. Great points, Mark, especially about allowing yourself time. Too many people treat a first draft as a finished product; serious writers know there is always something to tweak. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Fantastic advice, Candace. I was recently reading about Stephen King’s mistrust of pronouns and their slippery antecedents. It’s amazing how much stronger the writing comes out when they’re minimized.

  3. Very helpful post Candace. I see here by your examples the word it can be used at the end of a sentence. I don’t know why I’ve always tried to avoide using it in this manner but I defer to the grammer gurus. Thank you for the tips.

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