It Wasn’t

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…” ~Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

dickens_portrait_1861_lgAll respects to Charles Dickens, who wrote great, sprawling novels that have lasted generations. But his use of “it”  in this famous passage drives me crazy. Pronouns stand in for noun phrases, and refer to someone or something mentioned elsewhere in the writing. Any possible confusion is supposed to be mitigated by using the pronoun to represent the most recently mentioned noun. But pronouns muddling is common. For example, if two women are talking, which “she” does the writer mean? A skillful passage will drop names or use action to keep pronouns clear.

But “it,” the indefinite pronoun, takes the confusion to a whole new level. Writers often use phrases like “It couldn’t be worse” to refer to an unspoken situation just described (as being bad) but not named. The pronoun hangs out there with no visible attachment.

Or, “it” may be self-referencing, as in “It was a sunny day.” In unpacking the meaning, we discover that “The sunny day was a sunny day.”

Multiple uses of the indefinite pronoun invariably lead to “its” that refer to different things. And “it” easily pairs with passive, to-be verbs (“it was” is a common offender). Take a moment to revisit the famous Dickens passage and ask the question, “What does it refer to?”

Yet, you’ll see “it” in most published works (including some of mine). The indefinite pronoun is easy to use. I leave “it” alone in dialog—people talk that way—but I find that when replacing “it” in non-dialog prose, I’m forced to come up with clear subjects and active verbs, which improves the writing.

So, cut “it” out.

About Brian C. Kaufman

Author, educator, cook. Given a tilt of fate, that might have been lead guitarist, pro wrestler, radio evangelist. You never know.
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