The way we use words in everyday communication often fails within business writing. A prime example is the undefined it (technically called an unprecursed it). But, what is an undefined it, you ask? Before we delve into the details, please see the excerpts below from the fictitious assembly manual for the Generic Chair (proudly manufactured and sold by the Generic Store):
Example A: It’s a good idea to collect all of the necessary tools before beginning assembly.
Example B: It is going to take approximately three hours for the glue to dry.
In both of these sentences, it is and it’s mean something along the lines of “in this situation” or “you should know.” Their purpose is to introduce information: the person assembling the chair needs to collect the tools and allow the glue to dry for three hours.
However, the word it is a pronoun, and pronouns stand in for nouns or noun phrases. In the above examples, it doesn’t represent anything specific. The sentences are much more effective when we eliminate the uncertainty:
Example A Rewrite: You should collect all of the necessary tools before beginning the assembly.
Example B Rewrite: The glue will take approximately three hours to dry.
Now, it certainly does have a place in business writing, but only when the underlying meaning is clear. For example, “The Generic Store has lost 50 percent of its customers. It will be closing ten retail locations after the holiday season.” In this situation, it represents the Generic Store.
As mentioned above, people use the undefined it all of the time–in conversation, emails, informal writing, etc. And that usage is just fine because it usually doesn’t cause confusion. Yet, many language choices that are acceptable in casual environments can create ambiguity or misunderstandings in business writing. So, keep your pronouns clean. Define it.
Erin Wright is a freelance writer and editor in Chicago, Illinois. She specializes in general business content, marketing, blogs, web copy, and instructional material.