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Is using "it" redundant, wrong or necessary in the following sentence?

When the tubes are full, labels should be placed on them to identify what is inside.

When the tubes are full, labels should be placed on them to identify what it is inside.

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It is not only redundant, but misleading. "What" is a perfectly good pronoun, functioning as the subject of the relative clause "what is inside".

If you put another pronoun after it, that invites the reading where "what" is the object and "it" the subject (like "I told him what I saw"). So at first sight it looks as if it means "to identify what (the container is that) it is (on the) inside (of)". In fact, this reading doesn't work because there is nothing that "it" can refer to: but it suggests we are talking about the container, not the contents. This is confusing.

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You can say either:

  • ... to identify what is inside. [focus on the contents]
  • ... to identify what it is. [focus on the object]

(The difference is a little fuzzy when speaking of a chemical in a tube, so think of a woman's purse.)

The phrase "to identify what it is inside" sounds awkward, as if you were trying to mix the two meanings. So depending on what you mean to say, leave off either inside or it. In the case of a vial's content, you could use either. Using both would be redundant.

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