Copywriting Quick-Tip: Handle Pronouns with Care (or, What Does It Mean When It Says “It”?)

Marketing copy is not the stuff of great literature or even popular writing. It's normally more colloquial, bouncier, prone to pushing the confines of grammar in order to achieve its ends. Yet even in copywriting, there's a difference between casual and slovenly. Good copy may wear blue jeans and a T-shirt, but it does so judiciously and properly. It doesn't show up at work wearing its underwear on its head and its pants on backwards. All of the above to say, watch how you handle your pronouns. My latest editing project has reminded me how frequently pronouns crop up without a clear antecedent. The result is confusion. For instance ...

Rachel's whole family loved the outdoors. Mom and Dad often took the kids camping, Josh enjoyed fishing, and Rachel herself was keen on bird-watching. More than anything else, it drew the family together.

We're fine until the last sentence. What does "it" refer to? Grammatically, the answer is Rachel's bird-watching. But logically? Most likely the outdoors, but we're not sure. We're left scratching our heads, wondering what the writer meant. The above example might not create any waves in a conversation, where other factors beside grammar help to clarify meaning. But while good writing has a conversational feel to it, it is not conversation. Rules apply. And one of those rules is, When you say it (or he, or that, or they, and so on), make sure you're clear about what it refers to. If your meaning could seem ambiguous to your readers, then don't use a pronoun; instead, specify what you mean, thus:

More than anything else, the outdoor world [instead of "it"] drew the family together.

Again, effective copy is usually casual in tone. It's loose, not stuffy, and by no means is it hidebound. Good copy is, however, clear in its meaning. So vet your use of pronouns. Are your antecedents obvious? Is it plain what it means when it says "it"? If not, fix it. Huh? Wha'd he just say? Exactly. ’Nuff sed.