Wishy-washy words like ‘it’ and ‘this’

January 11, 2013

Based on a writing tip sent to my work colleagues. Some identifying content removed and replaced with […]. My colleagues and I work in the oil and gas industry, so the information about the potential to cost lives is very real for us.


In this writing tip, I look at wishy-washy words like ‘it’ and ‘this’, with some ‘we’, ‘our’, and ‘they’ rounding out the list of words that can take on more than one meaning, depending on context.

Bottom line:

  • Be specific. Be clear. Be unambiguous. If your sentence (or preceding sentence) refers to more than one subject or object, avoid ‘it’, ‘this’ etc. otherwise your reader has to stop to figure out what ‘it’ etc. refers to. If necessary, use the word/phrase a second time, reword the sentence, or split the sentence in two to avoid ambiguity and misinterpretation.
  • Hesitations and misinterpretations incur productivity losses and may cost lives.

Let’s look at some examples that have more than one possibility for ‘it’ etc. I’ve indicated the troublesome wishy-washy word in bold in the first column and have included the surrounding sentences to place the ‘it’ in context. In all cases, replacing ‘it’ etc. with the name of the thing being referred to would fix each sentence; some rewording may be required.

Example Comment
Before formally entering the finding into the tracking tool, the finding shall be communicated and agreed with the action party. If no agreement is reached, or if no communication is received from the action party, it shall be escalated to the action party’s manager. What is ‘it’ in this context? The finding? The lack of agreement? The lack of action from the action party? Something else?
The […] Risk Management Process describes key roles and responsibilities and establishes measurement and verification activities designed to monitor […] Risk Management and to promote a process of continual improvement. This includes quarterly reporting of leading and lagging indicators, annual review of process effectiveness, and periodic corporate auditing. What is ‘this’ in this context? The Risk Management Process? Monitoring? Promoting? Continual improvement?
Approval is requested through this Plan to potentially use treated water from the WWTP on site for non-potable construction purposes (e.g. dust suppression, compaction, washdown). This is in line with the waste management hierarchy and will result in a significant reduction in freshwater use on[…].

This will occur when the capacity of the WWTP to treat wastewater to the required specifications is achieved.

What is ‘this’ in these contexts? Approval? Use of  treated water?

While the first ‘this’ likely refers to the use of treated water, the second ‘this’ is very hard to figure out.

If the Contractor ‘adds value’ to a Company dataset, it shall be submitted to the Company Representative with an updated metadata record. What is ‘it’ in this context? The revised dataset? The added value part only? Specific metadata records? The Contractor??
However, the Core Project Team will work closely with this other project during Phase 3 to ensure we support early engagement with selected third-party Contractors to seek endorsement of our preferred alternatives for waste disposition equipment. Who is ‘we’ and ‘our’ in this context? Core Project team? [company name]? Some other entity?

(As an aside, avoid ‘we’, ‘our’ in all formal/business documentation – instead, use the entity’s formal name)

Note that when Reference Site […] was included in analyses, it showed this site was significantly different to all other sites, both during the […] Baseline Program and the […] Survey. What is ‘it’ in this context? The analyses? The results? Something else?
Should monitoring indicate that grazing is significantly impeding rehabilitation recovery, then the perimeter of rehabilitation areas may be fenced to exclude grazing fauna. If fenced, it will be maintained until the vegetation is sufficiently established to withstand grazing pressure. What is ‘it’ in this context? Rehabilitation areas? Perimeter fencing? Grazing?

Other examples where the meaning is unclear, though these examples don’t use ‘it’ etc.:

Example Comment
Findings shall be discussed prior to being raised with the person who facilitated the verification activity. Discussed with whom?
Additionally, the collection of all deck water for storage or treatment prior to discharge (e.g. through an oily water separator) is impracticable as this would require significant modifications in port to the vessels involved in the installation activities. Are the modifications to be made to the vessels or the port?

This example shows how misinterpretation can occur if you separate the thing (the vessels) being acted on (modified) and where those modifications are to take place (the port). Rewording this sentence would remove this ambiguity – for example: ‘… as this would require significant modifications to the installation vessels; such modifications would be carried out in port.’ OR : ‘… as this would require significant in-port modifications to the vessels involved in the installation activities.’

Finally, don’t eliminate all ‘it’ etc. words from your writing – they definitely have a place, but only where they reference a SINGLE thing and there’s no ambiguity as to what that thing is. (You may notice I used ‘they’ in the previous sentence – in this sentence, ‘they’ refers to ‘it’ etc. words, and can’t refer to anything else, so it’s perfectly acceptable to use.)

And to add some humor, there’s this:


One comment

  1. Thanks for a very good post. The overuse of the dreaded passive voice leads to so much fuzzy written communication.

    Love your bit of humor also, but in this example, any reasonably intelligent human would know (I hope) that “it” refers to “the poo.” Of course, they should have written: “If your DOG does a POO, please put it in a litter bin.” One sentence, with correct capitalization and comma usage… :))


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