The Dummy Subject

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Writers, especially beginning writers, are often cautioned against using passive voice in their writing because its use slows down the pace.

Another construction that can make your writing plod is the dummy subject.

When we use the words it and there to begin a sentence without a referent (a noun the pronoun is referring to), we’re using a dummy subject.

In this pair of sentences:

I went to see Fantastic Four 2 over the weekend. It was fun, but mostly forgettable.

“It” refers to the movie Fantastic Four 2. The pronoun has a referent.

In this sentence, however:

It is apparent that oil reserves will be exhausted by 2050.

“It” has no referent, and is therefore a dummy subject.

The same thing happens frequently with there:

There are several ways in which you could begin.

There are five stages of grief.

Dummy subjects are just one of many problems that weaken your writing by making it vague, fuzzy, and indefinite. The sentences above can be reconstructed with stronger, more definite subjects:

Some experts warn that our oil reserves will be exhausted by 2050.

You could begin in one of the following ways: (followed by a list).

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified five stages of grief in her book On Death and Dying.

In general, unless you don’t know who is performing an action, or you want to emphasize the action of the sentence for some reason, you should avoid dummy subjects.

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13 thoughts on “The Dummy Subject”

  1. I’m not sure what you mean, Matt. I would eliminate the “it is apparent” construction from that example altogether. 🙂

  2. Great tip, so it should be:

    “It is apparent FROM… , that oil reserves will be exhausted by 2050

  3. This is my first time hearing about the dummy subject. Now that I’m aware of it, I’ll definitely try to avoid it in my writing.

    Good tip. 🙂

  4. There are several good arguments for using the passive voice. For more detail refer to “The Council of Biological Editors” or similar style manual.

    One advantage of the passive voice is it demands clarity, attribution and minimal word count. Each of your sample sentences would be shortened by a competent editor. For example the sentence regarding oil supplies should be shortened to: “Our oil reserves will be exhausted by 2050” followed with the appropriate attributing footnote.

    Using a throw away like “Some experts say…” is exactly how FOX News commentators try to disguise and universalize their personal opinions by opening their sentences with phrases like “Many people believe…”. These writing and speaking styles promote a cognitive bias to which even the speaker becomes blinded.

    Keep it short. Use footnotes. Leave the literature to Shakespeare.

  5. The dummy subject seems to be always acceptable when expressing weather phenomena. “It’s raining.” We never hear, “The rain is raining.” I have asked speakers of other languages about this. The dummy subject in expressing weather phenomena seems to be a language universal.

  6. Not all English verbs have complete conjugations.

    Some, like the “weather verbs,” belong to a class that incudes what are called “defective” or “anomalous” verbs.

    “It rains” and “It’s snowing” are the only possible ways to make such statements. These “weather verbs” are impersonal verbs.

  7. Thanks for the advice about the use of dummy subjects. I have a question: Is it true to say that you can’t use the existential “there” as a dummy subject with a proper noun? If so, why? I mean you can say: “In the west of the country there is a large town”, but you can’t say “In the west of the country there is Bristol”.
    Thank you,

  8. Hi again,
    I ask this because I am teaching Italian students who seem to be able to use a proper noun in the above example.

  9. Claire, I think the suggestion is that the sentance would be clearer if you just left out the dummy subject and said “In the west of the country IS a large town or a town called Bristol.” the word ‘there’ is redundant. However, I know Il y a and C’e are very normal ways to speak French/Italian. Possibly, in academic writing, Il y a or C’e may be used less? To be honest, spoken English is often verbose and I don’t think dummy subjects are an issue.


  10. Consider the sentence:

    “It is wonderful that oil reserves will be exhausted by 2050.”

    which says something wholly different from the above suggested revision. The weak link in our initial sentence would seem to be the complement “apparent” and not the dummy subject.

  11. With that sentence just flip the syntax and the subject will be in the beginning instead of the end of the sentence.
    “That oil reserves will be exhausted by 2050 is wonderful.”
    And that gets rid of the dummy subject all together.

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