No More Grammatical Dummies

By Maeve Maddox

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Common terms used in teaching the expletive use of it and there are “dummy it, ” “dummy there,” and “dummy subject.”

expletive: Of a word or phrase: serving merely to fill out a sentence or a metrical line without adding anything to the sense.

Dummy
A derivative of dumb (“unable to speak), dummy boasts twenty-one shades of meaning in its OED entry. There’s even a verb, to dummy up: “to render silent.”

Merriam-Webster arranges its definitions of dummy under five headings, one of which is “an imitation, copy, or likeness of something used as a substitute.” This is the word’s meaning in the general terms “newspaper dummy,” “ventriloquist’s dummy,” crash-test dummy,” and “dummy corporation.” All stand in for or act as a substitute for something else. The usage is clear.

When it comes to the grammatical terms—“dummy it,” “dummy there,” and “dummy subject”—connotation enters the picture.

Words exert power.

Some words exert so much power that they must not be spoken or written.

For the orthodox Jew, the word God is so fraught with divine power that it is written as G-d. In speech, a different word altogether—Hashem (“Name”)—is used.

An English word that centuries of contemptuous use have imbued with toxic power is now referred to as “the n-word.”

A word that seems innocuous or even pleasant to one speaker may stir feelings of discomfort in another. For example, an insect name that had always sounded romantic to me—the “gypsy moth”—has been officially changed by the Entomological Society of America. The change was prompted by the fact that—for Romani people—the word gypsy has distressing connotations.

In Anglo-Saxon times, our linguistic ancestors used the adjective dumb only to mean “speechless” or “unable to speak.” The word dummy was coined to refer to people so afflicted. It didn’t take long for the noun to acquire the meaning, “stupid person.”

It can be argued that the dummy in “dummy subject” is so totally removed from use of dummy as an accusation of stupidity as to be irrelevant. But, although words can be conveniently categorized in a dictionary, connotations often overlap in use.

Take the British word for a baby’s pacifier, for example. In the UK, crying babies are given a “dummy.” In this context, the word dummy is a substitute nipple, but it is also a means of obtaining silence from the baby.

The word dummy used to label a grammatical construction implies that there is something wrong, if not stupid, about the usage. Here are some sentences that might be said to contain a “dummy subject.”

There’s a unicorn in the garden.
There will be a time to sleep, but not now.
It’s raining, it’s pouring, the old man is snoring.
It’s too late to apologize.

Each of these examples is a perfectly acceptable, idiomatic English sentence. Indeed, such a sentence begins one of the most famous and beloved novels in the English canon:

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

Introductory it and there are always followed by a form of the verb to be. The construction works just fine when to be is the only verb.

A “there sentence” becomes bad writing when a usable subject is buried later in the sentence.

There are six children playing in the street.
There will be end-of-year awards presented at the Friday assembly by the teachers.

Sentences like these demand to be rewritten. The way to do so is to replace the there with the buried subject.

Six children are playing in the street.
Teachers will present end-of-the-year awards at the Friday assembly.

Only some sentences that begin with there need revision, but the negative connotations of dummy suggest that every sentence with “a dummy subject” is somehow defective. In teaching the concept of the expletive subject—especially to young people—other terms are preferrable to “dummy.”

Nonreferential pronouns
One function of a pronoun is to refer to a noun that has previously been mentioned:

Thanks for lending me the book. I am enjoying it immensely.

In this example, it refers to book. It is a “referential pronoun.”

It’s raining.

The it in this sentence does not repeat or refer to a previously stated noun. It is a “nonreferential pronoun.”

Nonreferential and existential there
The many functions of the word there would require a separate post to review. One example will serve.

I lived in London for seven years. I loved living there.

In this example, there refers to a location previously mentioned: London. It is a “referential there.”

There is a reason for his sadness.

This sentence states the existence of something: a reason. A reason exists. This there is an “existential there.”

Usurper subject
Unlike “nonreferential” and “existential,” this not a grammar term that already exists. I’ve made it up:

usurper subject: a word that begins a sentence in which a true subject lurks after the being verb.

Bottom line
Used to teach grammar, the word dummy creates the false impression that all sentences beginning with an expletive are defective. To avoid misinterpretation, use a different term.

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