A thoughtful student asked today about an alleged rule of writing: “Don’t end a sentence with it.” Whoever thought up the rule probably didn’t see the comedy in that sentence. I’ve been told of other such rules: many students come to college believing that they must never begin a sentence with and, but, or because. The it-rule though is new to me. I suspect that it is not widespread: Garner’s Modern American Usage makes no mention of it, not in its entry about it, not in its entry about superstitions.
I did find the following comment, in Richard Lauchman’s 25 Hiccoughs of Guidance that Ruin Writing Style:
How did this one ever get started? When I was in school, no one ever bothered to tell me that ending a sentence with “it” was wrong. I’ve never been able to learn the basis for this advice. It makes no sense to me.Reader, are you familiar with this rule? Have you heard of it?
But what I can report is that many people have heard this “rule” and thus shy away from writing We have received your proposal and will notify you after we review it. Instead, of course, they feel compelled to write We have received your proposal and will notify you after it has been reviewed. If they have managed to evade the superstition about repeating words but have been exposed to the idea that pronouns are taboo, they write Subject proposal has been received by this office, and notification will follow after said proposal has undergone review. When we read this sort of thing, we have no one to blame but ourselves. After all, for it we asked.
February 23, 2015: Here’s more evidence, if anyone needs it, that it is acceptable to end a sentence with it. From Joseph M. Williams’s Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace (New York: Longman, 2003):
A sentence can end flatly if you repeat at its end a word used just a few words before, because the voice we hear in our mind’s ear drops off at the end of the sentence. You can hear that drop if you read aloud this sentence and the previous two sentences. To avoid that kind the flatness, rewrite or use a pronoun instead of repeating the word at the end of the sentence. For example:Not only is it acceptable to end a sentence with it : doing so can be the right thing to do.
A sentence will seem to end flatly if you use a word at its end that you used just a few words before, because when you repeat that word, your voice drops. Instead of repeating the noun, use a pronoun. The reader will at least hear emphasis on the word just before it.
[The words drops, pronoun, and before are in bold to mark emphasis.]
The passage is missing from the 2010 tenth edition of the much longer Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. It may be missing from the 2013 eleventh edition too. No matter: it was and is acceptable to end a sentence with it.
[“Don’t end a sentence with it”: granted, it here doesn’t function in relation to an antecedent. But still. Lauchman Group offers writing workshops for people in the world of work.]
January 19, 2016: I found my way to an influential source for this non-rule: Lindley Murray’s English Grammar, Adapted to the Different Classes of Learners. With an Appendix, Containing Rules and Observations for Promoting Perspicuity in Speaking and Writing (1795). Murray (1745–1826) was a lawyer who in retirement began writing books of grammatical instruction, with extraordinary success: Bryan Garner notes that in the first four decades of the nineteenth century, Murray’s books sold more than fifteen and a half million copies.
Murray’s advice about writing is at times remarkably congenial. Here is an observation that might have inspired William Strunk’s exhortation to “Omit needless words”:
[The first rule promoting the strength of a sentence, is, to prune it of all redundant words and members.
It is a general maxim, that any words which do not add some importance to the meaning of a sentence, always injure it. Care should therefore be exercised with respect to synonymous words, expletives, circumlocutions, tautologies, the expression of unnecessary circumstances. The attention becomes remiss, when words are multiplied without a corresponding multiplication of ideas.]
But at other times Murray’s advice is less helpful. Here is the rule against ending a sentence with it:
[The fifth rule for the strength of sentences is, to avoid concluding them with an adverb, a preposition, or any inconsiderable word .]
An example follows:
[Even the pronoun it , should, if possible, be avoided in the conclusion: especially when it is joined with some of the prepositions; as, with it , in it , to it . We shall be sensible of this of the following sentence. “There is not, in my opinion, a more pleasing and triumphant consideration in religion, than this, of the perpetual progress which the soul makes toward the perfection of its nature, without ever arriving at a period in it . How much more agreeable to sentence, if it had been so constructed us to close with the word period !]
“Should, if possible, be avoided in the conclusion”: the rule is not absolute, and as David Crystal points out, Murray ends a sentence with it just two pages later. It must have been unavoidable, he might have said. In the sample sentence above, though, the problem lies not in the word it but in “words which do not add some importance to the meaning of a sentence”: in it , an unnecessary phrase, needless words. There was and is nothing wrong with ending a sentence with it , or with an adverb, or with a preposition. She threw the ball and I caught it. We danced gracefully. Where did that noise come from?
How strange and sad that a warning — not a prohibition — issued in 1795 should still haunt writers. In the last three months, at least 500 people have wondered or worried enough to visit this post.
[I found my way to Murray’s warning while reading David Crystal’s The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left (2006): “To maintain the ‘strength’ of sentences, [Murray] says, we must ‘avoid concluding them with an adverb, a preposition, or any inconsiderable word’ — by which he means (from the examples he gives) pronouns such as it .” I have reproduced the more legible text of Murray’s An English Grammar: Comprehending the Principles and Rules of the Language, Illustrated by Appropriate Exercises, and a Key to the Exercises (1808). In both English Grammar and An English Grammar, the rule appears in a discussion of sentence strength (“a disposition and management of the several words and members, as shall bring out the sense to the best advantage.” For the third passage, the earlier English Grammar has a semicolon after conclusion and the word more before especially .]