By Brian Kaufman
“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
Much respect to Charles Dickens, who wrote great, sprawling novels that have entertained generations of readers, but the passage quoted above drives me crazy. It and was are a terrible pairing of words that have allowed even skilled writers to be lazy and confusing. Let me explain.
Pronouns stand in for nouns and refer to someone or something mentioned earlier in a prose passage. Any confusion is supposed to be mitigated by using the pronoun to represent the most recently mentioned noun. For example:
John had run the baseball bat through a wood chipper, so he was certain the police wouldn’t find the evidence they needed.
In the example, “he” clearly refers to the just-mentioned John. Unfortunately, pronoun muddling is common. For example, if two women are talking, which “she” does the writer mean? A skillful passage will drop names at the appropriate time or use action to keep pronouns clear:
Millie seemed worried and confessed her unease to Tillie over tea. Tillie sat listening, her hands folded neatly in her lap while Millie fumbled on. “Nellie would never miss an appointment…that’s just not like her. She is nothing if not…dependable. And you know how she is about her hair!” Tillie nodded. Nellie’s hair was her one vanity.
But “it,” the indefinite pronoun, is inherently confusing. Let’s look at a few examples to see why:
John sighed. It couldn’t be worse.
Here, the writer refers to an unspoken situation just described (as being the worst of all possible outcomes) but not named. The pronoun “it” dangles without a visible attachment. This sort of construction has an easy fix—replace the pronoun with the noun (“The situation couldn’t be worse.”)
It was a sunny day.
This example is self-referencing. In unpacking the meaning of the sentence, we discover that “The sunny day was a sunny day.” Edward Bulwer-Lytton immortalized this transgression in his novel Clifford (published in 1830) when he wrote, “It was a dark and stormy night…”
Those famous seven words became the basis for the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which awards a prize for the worst possible opening line of a novel.
Multiple uses of the indefinite pronoun invariable lead to its that refer to different things. Consider the following example:
It couldn’t be! John had shredded the bat to sawdust. Could it be used for blood evidence? And would it yield other evidence? Surely, no fingerprints? It didn’t take a genius to realize it was bad news for John.
As Mr. Dickens demonstrated, “it” easily pairs with passive, to-be verbs. You’ll avoid that pairing if your goal is active, meaningful prose. When replacing “it” in my own work, I’m forced to come up with clear subjects and active verbs, which improves my writing.
I make an exception when writing dialog. People say “it” all the time when they speak. Precision and perfection aren’t realistic characteristics for flawed characters.
Try two things:
First, revisit the famous opening passage to A Tale of Two Cities and ask the question, “What does it refer to?” Then, pull up your latest work-in-progress and do a macro search for “it was.”
Then, cut “it” out.