The Most Dangerous Word

Person sat next to a nice open fire reading a book

Language is indeed a rich, colorful medium. English especially can seem incredibly lavish and diverse compared to some other languages in active use today — at least when we consider the wide range and variety of different words we can use to essentially share the same thought, idea or concept — often in subtly different ways.

The flip-side of course, is the difficulty in learning English by people who's first language is something else entirely. Yet one word especially, can be deadly!

Before we explore what is arguably our most destructive word in the English language, let's delve a little deeper into this confusing language known as English.

We can appreciate the puzzled expression on the face of the English language student when first introduced to the following three words that sound similar, yet have important differences in definition and usage:

  • To: as in the direction of, toward.
  • Too: as in addition; as well, also.
  • Two: as in more than one, less than three.

However, there's one commonly used word in English that if used without full consideration of the implications can ultimately probably be the most confusing word ever. We use it constantly in spoken language. I've just used it twice within the current paragraph.

Consider the following instruction:

  • "To sterilize the baby's bottle, drop it into boiling water."

Have you spotted what I'm referring to?

Yes, the word I'm cautioning against is the use of: "it." (and the variations of "its" or "it's").

When used in context or in ways that make unmistakable sense, we can include the word "it" and know that our meaning is always made clear.

Nevertheless, can you appreciate the potentially disastrous implications of using "it" in, for example:

  • A nuclear power plant training manual — especially for use with workers in another country whose first language is not English?
  • An aircraft maintenance program? Ditto above.
  • A calibration manual for some sophisticated electronic surgical apparatus?

Suddenly, ill-considered use of the seemingly innocent "it" word can, at best, be dangerous, and at worst disastrous!

Who would have thought that a simple two-letter word could hold the power of life and death? Yet "it" can, does, and already has! Lives can be lost through the careless use of "it"!

To people who already understand the subtle nuances and meanings of English, perhaps there's no problem: if we're already familiar with English peculiarities, we know what the writer really means, that we can sterilize the bottle using very hot water, and leave the baby safely situated.

Key tip: the important point is the use of "it" in this instance is still vague and that as professional communicators continually seeking to improve, we should be on the look out for all kinds of potential misunderstandings in our work.

In explaining how to sterilize the baby's bottle, the use of "it" — or the derivative "its" or "it's" — can sometimes make a sentence seem ambiguous.

When analysed from an English grammar understanding, the key point to consider when using "it": in this instance, the ambiguity begs the question, "Is the action required to be performed on the bottle or the baby?"

The above example is simplistic and of course we know the real meaning. However, in practice, the question could be more complex and that's where the potential for true confusion really lies.

Therefore, unless you're:

  • Writing a novel and quoting your characters who are often naturally (and deliberately) vague, or ...
  • Seeking a special kind of impact in which the meaning is already clear, or ...
  • Simply writing in a lighthearted, conversational style — mimicking human tendencies ... (such as we constantly do on this web site :-)

... look for ways to avoid using "it" in your writing, unless the message carries absolutely no risk of misunderstanding.

In our simple example above, we would need to re-word such a sentence to make sure the instruction required is clear and precise. How: we could simply re-word the instruction:

  • "To sterilize the baby's bottle, place the bottle in boiling water."

Admittedly, this second version uses word repetition and is not as tight as the original version; nevertheless, such an important instruction is now clear, simple and direct without any hint of misunderstanding (providing any related translation into another language is also done with equal care).

Clarity and precise meaning should always take precedence in such instructions.

Be specific in business, instructional and technical writing and you may win the day, or even save someone's life later.

Alternatively, if you wrote the instructional or maintenance manual, you could end up defending your use of "it" in one or more future legal court cases and having to live the rest of your life enduring the consequences resulting from your "innocent oversight".

When clear instructions are needed, take special care in your use of the words "it", "its" and "it's"!

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