This, It, and the Power of Pronouns

Earlier this year, bloggers at Gawker left behind internet slang for a formal style more in line with the New York Times than gossip blogs. As Gawker attempts to redefine itself as a publishing authority, its new editorial guidelines have adapted to explicitly forbid the language that Gawker’s readers recognize as an identifying component of its brand. One banned term stood out amid the roster of internet slang, which included OMG, WTF, and amazeballs: the standalone this.

What could be so controversial about this, your everyday, run-of-the-mill pronoun? Pronouns, of course, play an important role in language, standing in for nouns or noun phrases so that every time we discuss a topic we don’t have to keep repeating ourselves. Without pronouns, most sentences would be unruly mouthfuls.

In the realm of internet slang, the word this, rather than simply standing in for nouns or noun phrases, has stepped up to replace longer descriptions or discussions. This, when posted with a link to an article, video, song, or the like, can take on meanings as varied as “You should watch this thing I just posted because it’s really great,” “This song represents me,” or “I totally agree with this article and your life will be better after having read it.” This is supremely vague and can morph to fill numerous purposes, though people tend to use this to indicate that they like, relate to, or agree with the thing they’re referencing. Sometimes people will caption these sorts of links with the standalone “THIS,” or the extended “This is everything.” Whether they use one word or three, people feel that the link or the excerpt they’ve posted is powerful enough to do the talking for them.

The history of this used in this particular context is relatively short. Know Your Meme dates it to sometime shortly before 2009, when a user on Yahoo! Answers posted a question asking why people write “this” under quoted forum posts, suggesting that this usage, as of 2009, was widespread enough to be noticed, but not so common as to be universally understood. Sometimes this appears preceded by a caret (^this), and sometimes it appears in all caps followed by a period (THIS.). This started out in forums and social media posts, and then made its way to the heavily trafficked pages of sites like Gawker.

Long before this graced online forums, social media sites, and blogs, another common pronoun was being used in new and interesting ways. That word is it. Soon after the 1927 film It hit theaters, the starlet Clara Bow was being referred to as the “it girl.” What exactly did it stand for? Sex appeal? Star quality? Whatever it stood for, Clara Bow had it. To define it would be to devalue her hold on the American public. It is also the title of Stephen King’s 1986 psychological horror novel, adapted into a two-part miniseries in 1990. In this case, it refers to a monster with the ability to transfigure itself into what its victims most fear (which often turns out to be Pennywise the Dancing Clown). Within vagueness lies endless possibility; as we can see, the possibility to be both utterly frightened or enamored rest in the same tiny pronoun.

In these contexts of it and this, mundane pronouns work to be far more evocative and powerful than the nouns, noun phrases and expressions that they stand in for. When the standalone this appears, a person is communicating his or her overall inability to put awe into words. This expresses the quality of being rendered literally speechless in writing, something not easy to achieve without actually using the term “speechless.” Maybe Gawker’s ban on the standalone this will lead to more dynamic writing, though perhaps like Clara Bow’s it, only an unassuming pronoun could do these ineffable feelings justice.