It is . . . that; or, How Not to Edit Jane Austen

By Barney Latimer

The formula it is . . . that is one of the most common rhetorical tics in academic writing. This formula also provides a great opportunity to edit for concision, since it can usually be removed easily from a sentence without changing the meaning.

Often, one can simply remove “It is” and “that” and leave the sentence otherwise untouched.

Original:

It is this ambivalence that gives the poem its power.

Edited version:

This ambivalence gives the poem its power.

Sometimes, it may work better to place the phrase that follows “It is” at the end of the sentence.

Original:

It is in the light of this discovery that we should reexamine our understanding of T. S. Eliot’s early poems.

Edited version A:

We should reexamine our understanding of T. S. Eliot’s early poems in the light of this discovery.

Some sentences, like this one, lend themselves to a more radical overhaul. Here is one way to make this sentence even more concise and dynamic.

Edited version B:

This discovery compels us to look at T. S. Eliot’s early poems in a new light.

This formula, however, is not intrinsically bad. Used sparingly, “it is . . . that” can be an effective rhetorical tool. A writer can use it to pluck an otherwise unremarkable phrase from the surrounding prose and unveil it before the reader with a flourish. Jane Austen comes to mind:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

Few readers have ever wished that Austen had begun Pride and Prejudice this way instead:

We all know that a single man with a lot of money must need a wife.

Published 8 February 2017

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