It is not the shortest word in English, but it is pretty close. On the other hand, it is used fairly often. Do the previous sentences make the point? The first use is the main one, and each of the other two refers back to, and is a substitute for, that first occurrence. But it can be overused, as these sentences also demonstrate.
It is a pronoun
It is used to represent:
- an inanimate thing that’s understood, previously mentioned, about to be mentioned, or present in the immediate context (e.g., Asked to describe the car, he said, “It had whitewall tires and red upholstery.“).
- a person or animal that’s understood, previously mentioned, or about to be mentioned whose gender is unknown or disregarded (e.g., Who was it? It was John.).
- a group that’s understood or previously mentioned (e.g., The teacher told the class it must be quiet during the movie.).
- a concept or abstract idea that’s understood or previously stated (e.g., It all started with a white lie.).
- an action or activity that’s understood, previously mentioned, or about to be mentioned (e.g., If you don’t like it, lump it.).
- to refer to
- something as the origin or cause of pain, pleasure, etc. (e.g., It looks bad for the candidate.).
- a source not specifically named or described (e.g., It is said that brevity is the soul of wit.).
- the general state of affairs; circumstances, fate, or life in general (e.g., How’s it going?).
- as the impersonal subject of the verb to be, especially to refer to time, distance, or the weather (e.g., It is six o’clock. It is five miles to town. It was foggy.).
- in statements expressing an action, condition, fact, circumstance, or situation without reference to an agent (e.g., If it weren’t for my final exam tomorrow, I would go.).
- as an anticipatory subject or object to make a sentence more eloquent or suspenseful or to shift emphasis (e.g., It was only a toy pistol that he wielded.).
Maybe because it serves so many purposes, it gets overused. Following are some common situations.
Opening a sentence with it
The issue here is using it before the actual subject being referred to has been mentioned. It‘s a case of putting the cart before the horse. Examples:
It was a dark and stormy night. (“A History of New York”, Washington Irving, 1809)
It was nearly midnight (“Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”, J.K. Rowling, 2009)
It would be really sad to lose the game.
These sentences are certainly efficient, and they’re classically used to set a scene. But the sentences can be rewritten to be more exacting and colorful and/or to put the emphasis on what’s important. Furthermore, they may create a picture with more emotion, putting your reader’s initial focus on the real issue and hooking the reader into the story.
On the other hand, the sentences might be arranged.
The night was dark and stormy.
The clock would soon strike twelve—midnight.
Losing the game would be really sad.
Here’s something you can try. Choose one of your written works and count how many times, and where, you use the word it. See if there are places where you can rearrange the text to eliminate some of the occurrences.
Use of it as pronoun when no noun is named
With no noun (such as a person, place, thing, or idea) specifically referred to, the use of it is, at best, vague. That’s often enough to stop the reader’s flow, which is normally not a good idea. Example:
I went to the zoo with a couple of friends. It was fun.
The problem: What does it refer to in the second sentence? Without a noun to refer to, the reader is left wondering what was fun: the visit? the experience? time with her friends? one of the animals? What’s required is to replace it with something more descriptive. And maybe fun is actually the wrong word to use (e.g., The monkeys were interesting to watch.).
The use of the right words can make a large difference in meaning, mood, and effect. Replacing it with words that are specific and tailored to the scene, action, or emotion will have a huge impact on what you’re trying to describe or convey.
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