Maloney Home Page  |  Eradicating the lone “this” and “it” from your technical writing

This note is part of an ongoing series intended to ensure that readers focus on your research rather than on phrases that may not sound natural in English. During the manuscript review process, every reviewer has a limit to exposure to awkward wording; if this threshold is exceeded, reviewers tend to shift their focus to language differences and may even refuse to finish reading the manuscript! My goal is to suggest more natural phrases and strategies for communication to keep the focus on your high-quality study.

Motivation

A quick quiz regarding the following introductory passage:

Over the past decade, China has enacted regulations restricting high-risk construction activities such as shallow-pile stabilization on slopes with over 50% deforestation. This has become a substantial problem and is the focus of the present study.

What, exactly, “has become a substantial problem and is the focus of the present study”?

  • Excessive deforestation?
  • Slopes unfavorable for building?
  • The proliferation of high-risk construction activities?
  • The specific new regulations?
  • China’s overall regulatory environment?

Possibly the context could provide the answer. Consider, for example, if the next sentence began with

The causes of deforestation include...

or

The implications of excessive regulations are…

This additional information might help us discern what the authors mean by “this.”

For now, however, we know only that the authors suggest that a certain problem exists. The absence of a noun or noun phrase after the pronoun “this” produces cognitive disorientation in which the argument’s flow is temporarily halted while we consider six nouns or noun phrases (involving deforestation, slopes, stabilization, activities, regulations, and China) in seeking the meaning of “this.” Such cognitive loads can make reading tiring and leave reviewers and editors frustrated because they don’t understand the message.

The problem and its context

The technical name for this problem is an unclear antecedent or a vague referent, the antecedent or referent being the topic that the pronoun “this” or “it” refers to. In this note, I focus on how such vagueness arises and how we can polish our technical writing to avoid lone pronouns with no clear antecedent.

Let’s first look at the positive side. I’ve seen enough ambiguous examples of “it,” “this,” “these,” “them,” and “they” in the midst of strong research reports to recognize that these terms are actually a sign of otherwise efficiency! Really—a pronoun with no apparent antecedent suggests that you and your colleagues have thought so deeply about the research context, results, and implications that you’re comfortable using a shorthand language. In my experience, it’s commonplace for a researcher to walk into a close colleague’s office and say something similar to

It goes up by five if I shift things over. When will the other one arrive?”
or
“We can expect a big problem with this unless I turn them around or move it higher.”

Does this sound like research incompetence? To me, it sounds like a smooth-running team communicating efficiently (albeit informally). I understand and salute the research capability and familiarity behind the lone “this” and “it”; these examples are indicators of a thorough familiarity with the research topic. By all means, let’s continue to use such terms with our colleagues who understand them. But we need to be more precise when writing for an audience who’s hearing our ideas and results for the first time and who appreciates guidance in every description of our research progress. Articulating our aims, procedures, results, and implications clearly to the editor, referee, and reader in this way is essential to mastering research publication.

Solutions

Can we clarify the meaning of every single lone and ambiguous “this” and “it”—along with every lone “these” and “they”—in our manuscript?

In many cases I’ve encountered in technical editing, “this” can be immediately expanded into one of three types of terms:

  • this approach (or this method or this model or this technique or this strategy or this algorithm or this procedure) (when we are referring to our own or others’ work and goals)

  • this condition (or this scenario or this environment) (when we are referring to a state that exists)

  • this equation (or this variable or this parameter, as appropriate).

I find that these revisions cover the majority of cases. Again, we can view the lone “this” or “it” in a positive light: such terms presume familiarity with the essential elements of the research: the goals, constraints, procedures, and results. Let’s ensure that this level of familiarity isn’t confusing to the average reader of the paper, however.

Toward clearer and more assertive writing

The opportunity to replace the lone “this” or “it” with a clearer phrase actually provides a powerful tool to deliver your message. Don’t discard this possibility. Let’s say that previous reports of a phenomenon are inconsistent. You might have written

[Description of previous reports and their findings.] This is why we conducted the present study.

Your message is: A discrepancy exists in the literature. Therefore, consider:

This discrepancy motivates the present study, which aims to identify the true value.

or

This deviation prompts our review of the dominant sources of error.

Here, we take advantage of the edit to not just elaborate what we mean by “this” but also announce how we respond to an unsatisfactory situation in our research field.

Or consider this following example:

The 2019 device had an efficiency of 78% compared to the previous record of 72%, obtained in 1979…This strong increase reveals the positive outcome of intense research effort.

vs.

The 2019 device had an efficiency of 78% compared to the previous record of 72%, obtained in 1979…This lack of substantial progress over four decades reveals that the potential of this technology has long been saturated.

These discussions proceed in starkly different directions! If the second sentence had simply started with “This reveals,” then the reader would have to wait for a while longer before understanding the intended message.

A side note on pronoun phrases in English

There are two extremes that can sound unusual in English writing (but that I encounter frequently as an editor): the repetition of noun phrases and the repetition of “it.” For example, both of the examples below sound unnatural:

The numerical relaxation integral transform approach was first proposed in 1989 by Henderson et al. [12]. The numerical relaxation integral transform approach and other, similar approaches can be applied to static and dynamic configurations [13-16]. Recently, Chen et al. incorporated eigenvalues and tensor algebra to extend the numerical relaxation integral transform approach to anisotropic materials [17]. In this study, we aim to elucidate the mechanical behavior of rare earth metal monovalent compounds; therefore, the numerical relaxation integral transform approach is applied to a cubic lattice.

The numerical relaxation integral transform approach was first proposed in 1989 by Henderson et al. [12]. It and other, similar approaches can be applied to static and dynamic configurations [13-16]. Recently, Chen et al. incorporated eigenvalues and tensor algebra to extend it to anisotropic materials [17]. In this study, we aim to elucidate the mechanical behavior of rare earth metal monovalent compounds; therefore, it is applied to a cubic lattice.

The longer we wait until encountering each “it,” the less meaning the term has, with a similar loss of comprehension if an intermediate “this” is thrown in. For the second mention, as long as no ambiguity exists, consider referring to “this approach.” Thus established, we can subsequently refer to “the/this approach/method/technique.” If a variety of techniques is described, “such approaches/methods/techniques” is appropriate:

The numerical relaxation integral transform approach was first proposed in 1989 by Henderson et al. [12]. Such approaches can be applied to static and dynamic configurations [13-16]. Recently, Chen et al. incorporated eigenvalues and tensor algebra to extend the integral transform approach to anisotropic materials [17]. In this study, we aim to elucidate the mechanical behavior of rare earth metal monovalent compounds; therefore, the approach is applied to a cubic lattice.

A grab bag of clearer expressions

Although “this” and “it” are the most frequent offenders, “they” and “these” and “that” can be just as confusing when used alone and would benefit from the same attention. But consider the alternatives for “it” alone:

It can be seen in Figure 2 that… (or it can be observed from Figure 2 that…)
Figure 2 shows that…
It appears that… (or is evident that or is well known that or is obvious that…
(Delete. You don’t know what is obvious to your reader. They probably trust that if something is well known, you’ll simply state it.)
It is suggested that… (or is believed that…)
We recommend that… (if you’re reporting a preference)
We hypothesize that… (if you expect to text this hypothesis)
We suggest that… (if you wish to express a conclusion with deference)
It has been reported that…
(Just add the citation. If you’re not ready to pronounce the finding as a fact, use "[X] reported that… (or suggested or noted or emphasized or concluded or determined or established or speculated wildly or hypothesized without support that…, depending on how you wish to present the report).
It means that…
Consequently, …
We define [X] as…
Fig. [X] indicates that…
We conclude that…
It remains to be seen whether [X] will occur because…
[X] is unlikely because…
We anticipate [X] in several months because…
We cannot predict when [X] will occur because…
Check your most recent manuscript: are there any examples of the lone “this” or “it”? Is the meaning of the antecedent absolutely clear, or would some revision be helpful? These revisions are intended to reduce ambiguity and ensure that your message is clear.

About the author: John M. Maloney received his Ph.D. in 2012 in the area of biological cell chemomechanics from MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, where he most recently held a full-time appointment as Research Scientist. He has published research reports in Nature Biotechnology and Nature Materials and holds 10 patents in the area of microfabrication and medical device design. As a freelance technical editor, certified by the Board of Editors in the Life Sciences, he has edited more than a thousand manuscripts, focusing on helping non-native English speakers articulate their research results with sophistication and technical precision.

 

Copyright John M. Maloney