The best employers, editors and professors intuitively use a fool-proof test to evaluate your writing. Unfortunately, most people are unaware of what’s going on and instantly fail. But the problem is easy to fix. Learn a simple grammar trick and you’ll automatically write like a winner.
If the thought of tackling grammar makes you want to run screaming from this page, wait! The solution is actually quite painless. And the benefits last forever.
Instead of writing like a rookie, you’ll have an edge in writing anything — your next research paper, memo, job application, cover letter, blog post, essay or novel. Even your texts or emails will look sharper.
We begin by wrapping our brains around two tiny words.
The difference between “it” vs. “they”
When students first walk into my class, I find that they’ve grown up barely paying any attention to their usage of “it” and “they.” Their first written homework assignment is always a wake-up call.
Treating “it” and “they” carelessly makes for sloppy writing. Sloppy writing makes teachers, professors and smart bosses very irritable.
In dealing with me, a student who lacks it-vs.-they insight receives an A- on what might otherwise be an A assignment. Repeat violators eventually shape up because they get tired of grades in the B+ or B range.
The pay-off comes comes at semester’s end. With their sharp(er) writing, my cranky students turn happy as they find work and even land great gigs.
Bottom line: Writing skills matter in the business world. In the job market, a lack of it-vs.-they savvy will probably land your cover letter in the “reject” pile.
But after reading this blog post, your new it-vs.-they knowledge makes you more hirable, promotable and maybe even more likable. :)
Going through a few examples will show you how this works.
Examples using “it” vs. “they”
Okay. Here are two sentences. What’s wrong with the second one?
This is a great restaurant. They have the best bread.
Well, the problem is that there’s only one restaurant mentioned. So if “restaurant” is singular, you can’t use “they.” You have to say “it.” Like this:
This is a great restaurant. It has the best bread.
If using “it” feels awkward, then tweak your sentence. Rephrase. Maybe like this:
These folks run a great restaurant. They always have the best bread.
The rephrasing works because “folks” refers to more than one folk. We have multiples, making them “folks.” Now, we’re dealing with plurals. “Folks” is a “they” concept.
Words that involve “it” vs. “they” issues
By now, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve steered clear of using hard-core grammar talk. Grammar tends to scare people, which is why I’ve introduced you to it-vs.-they in non-technical language.
But we need a bit of terminology, just a teeny new word: noun.
Students often seem surprised that most “they” words used in everyday conversation are actually “it” words when typed. This happens because the words fall into a grammar category called nouns — specifically, nouns which identify places, ideas or things.
When we talk these words, “they” comes naturally out of our mouths. And that’s totally fine! But when we type or write these words, make the mental switch. Be sure that “it” flows from your fingertips.
Here are some words that take “they” when we’re speaking but “it” when we’re writing: restaurant, cafe, bar, union, center, community, organization, museum, foundation, school, university, college, office, agency, fb (as in facebook), FBI, NYPD, Army, Navy, website, blog, committee, band, orchestra, quartet, hotel, building, theater, store, shop, boutique, film, book, DVD, gas station, temple, mosque, church, radio station, newspaper, website, network, department, government, party, park, festival, program, show, city, state, country, nation…
And here’s another way to look at the issue:
And now, a few words on identifying people
Note to reader: This entire post was written in 2009. But on July 30, 2018, I updated the section below to reflect our society’s evolving culture on gender issues. Everything else you’ve read up to this word still holds true.
In the last decade or so, our views have completely changed on the use of “it” vs. “they” for identifying people. Back in the prehistoric 20th century, I used to be so annoyed with social media site for sending out this kind of notification:
“Your Facebook friend X just posted their first Instagram photo.”
Back then, it was considered wrong to refer to only one friend as “their.” In the past, the correct grammar for this notification should have been about a friend who “just posted his/her first Instagram photo.”
But that was the 1900s. The 21st century — especially in recent years — has been about evolving gender awareness. We all have new respect and options for individual choice in how we identify ourselves.
Today, “it” and “they” work just fine instead of “she,” “her,” “he” and “him.”
Well, you’ve survived this discussion — congratulations! You now possess a writing tool that instantly makes you a classier, more confident writer.