What Is It? Avoid Undefined Pronouns to Strengthen Your Writing

“He worked hard to earn enough money to buy it.”Undefined pronouns

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

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.

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 the way this sentence is constructed. 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 problem 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.”

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

This example eliminates “it” completely.

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.

If you have any great tips for avoiding the overuse of “it” in your writing. please share in the comments.

Happy Writing,


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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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21 thoughts on “What Is It? Avoid Undefined Pronouns to Strengthen Your Writing”

  1. ” 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? ”

    I was most worried about the pizza. 😉

    1. Good to know, Gwen, and I’ll try to do them a bit more often. I’m usually motivated to write about grammar issues when I do a manuscript evaluation and see something repeated multiple times in the same manuscript.

    1. I’m afraid to go back and look through my own posts to see how many times I’ve been guilty of this myself. It’s always easier to see mistakes in someone else’s writing than in your own, isn’t it?

    1. “It” and “this” (or “that”) are all great pronouns to use–if the writer clearly defines the antecedent. I found my own writing became much clearer when I started to ask myself, “What does ‘it’ stand for?” every time.

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