Column: Dummy subjects for dummies


Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt

Doesn’t it feel good to do battle with someone with whom you don’t agree behind the safety of a screen? We jump on Twitter on our smartphones to call someone a loser in all caps. We hide inside our anonymous online identities, rapidly re-sharing the outrage du jour. Our TV pundits aren’t even in the same room; they lob talking points like hand grenades at each other via satellite.

When is the last time someone changed her mind as a result of this kind of argument? In my opinion, this way of waging war is pointless; you and your echo chamber only feel angrier and more self-righteous as a result. Verbal combat over social media and cable news is pointless. Nobody wins.

Today, I want to tackle the dummy subject (also referred to as an artificial or empty subject), which is a verbal construction that weakens your writing, making it seem vague and nebulous. You find yourself using a dummy subject whenever you use “it” or “there” to start a sentence without referring to the noun “it” or “there” represents. Let me use some examples:

Weak: It seems like everyone’s just yelling past each other.

Better: After watching shows on MSNBC, Fox News and CNN for an hour, my brain hurt. It seems like everyone’s just yelling past each other.

In the second example, “it” refers back to “shows” in the first sentence.

“There” also gets used as a dummy subject:

Weak: There are 37 varieties of pineapples in the world.

Better: The World Fruit Council has identified 37 varieties of pineapples in the world.

The second example is stronger because it provides a source for the fact about pineapples. Without the authority of someone like the “World Fruit Council” (which I just made up), the sentence feels indefinite.

In the same way that arguing from behind the shield of a screen makes our arguments go nowhere, using dummy subjects makes your writing sound uncertain and wobbly.

I don’t think we would die if we engaged in disagreements with people face-to-face. In fact, I think a healthy level of conflict sharpens us—as long as we don’t resort to calling each other dummies.