Crafting Better Sentences: Use “It” Carefully
How often do you think about the word it? “Hardly ever” would probably be the answer from most people. And that’s a shame, because it - a highly useful word – can cause punctuation errors and sentence structure problems if you’re not careful.
Here are some tips that many writers have found helpful:
1. Run-ons are by far the most common error when writers use it in a sentence.
Here’s an example:
My English teacher loved my last paper, it earned an A. RUNON
Any idea that starts with a person, place, or thing is a sentence. Sentences end with periods. And since “it” stands for a thing, anything that starts with it is a new sentence.
Here’s a handy guideline: “If it starts with it, it’s a sentence.”
Here’s the corrected sentence:
My English teacher loved my last paper. It earned an A. CORRECT
You can also use a semicolon:
My English teacher loved my last paper; it earned an A. CORRECT
2. An error called an “indefinite pronoun reference” can occur when you use it in a sentence. It (and other pronouns like they, that, this, and which) needs to refer to something specific that you’ve already named. Although this explanation sounds complicated, it’s easy to understand when you look at an example or two.
The kitchen ran out of clean plates, and it caused a delay serving dessert. INDEFINITE PRONOUN REFERENCE
What caused the delay? Running out of clean plates.
But those exact words don’t appear in the sentence. Let’s try rewriting it:
Running out of clean plates in the kitchen caused a delay serving dessert. CORRECT
Here’s another example:
Because Linda loves chocolate, it makes losing weight difficult for her. INDEFINITE PRONOUN REFERENCE
What makes losing weight difficult for Linda? Loving chocolate. But those exact words don’t appear in the sentence. Here’s a better version:
Loving chocolate makes losing weight difficult for Linda. CORRECT
You could also rewrite the whole sentence to eliminate that indefinite “it”:
Linda’s love for chocolate makes losing weight difficult for her. CORRECT
3. The apostrophe in it’s is another cause of confusion for many writers. This problem is easily solved by thinking of the apostrophe as a tiny letter “i.” It’s = it is
When it’s time for the children to line up for lunch, their teacher rings a little bell. CORRECT
4. What if you want to make “it” possessive? This problem is also easily solved if you think about other possessive pronouns: his, hers, ours, yours, theirs. Notice anything? None of them have apostrophes.
This bicycle is mine, and that one is hers. CORRECT
John is adding another bathroom to his house. CORRECT
The possessive word its works the same way:
The company doubled its profits last year. CORRECT
The dog played with its ball for half an hour. CORRECT
5. When do you put an apostrophe at the end of its? NEVER. Does that surprise you? Check the dictionary! In fact that’s what you should do any time you’re confused about it’s and its.
Let’s summarize what you’ve learned today. Here are some quick guidelines:
- If it starts with it, it’s a sentence.
- It is = it’s
- Its is possessive, with no apostrophe, like his
And that’s it!
Jean Reynolds, Ph.D., is a longtime English professor, a Shaw scholar, and the author of seven published books.
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