• Patrick Power

When 'It' Makes You Shudder


More terrifying than Stephen King's movie IT is an 'it' or a 'this' in a sentence that does not appear to refer to anything in particular. Please look at this sentence:


'One of the results of the pandemic in the UK is that people are reluctant to use public transport, preferring to use their own vehicles. Unfortunately, it is not available to everyone, leading to a form of social apartheid in transportation.' At first glance, 'it' appears to be referring back to 'public transport', but that does not make sense -- surely the point of public transport is that it should be available to all (although I have to admit that public transport in London is eye-wateringly expensive!). In this case, it would appear that the writer is referring to the fact that people are making a choice to use private vehicles, and it is this choice which is not available to everyone. As such, it would be better to say, 'Unfortunately, this choice is not available to everyone, leading to a form of social apartheid in transportation'.


When you are writing, it is important not to give your reader a headache. When we use pronouns such as 'it', 'this', 'they', etc. (referents in grammatical terms) to refer back to things we have already mentioned (antecedents), it is important to eliminate any ambiguity. What do you think about the sentence below? Does it give you a (minor) headache and could you give it some ibuprofen? You are welcome to rewrite it in the comments.


'Vehicle air pollution now exceeds pre-pandemic levels, leading many experts to fear a surge in respiratory illnesses. Others argue, however, that they will soon be electric, so there is little to worry about in the medium term.'




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Your teacher probably told you not to start sentences with 'but' or 'and'. This is good advice. It is one of the most common errors in academic writing. These words belong to the class of coordinating