Dummy Subjects for Dummies

Our world has no shortage of dummies. And they can be cute and amusing – think McDull or the Three Stooges. But you don’t want to be a dummy, and neither does the subject of your sentence. So what is a “dummy subject” anyway? As with many features of English, this is best explained by looking at some examples.

It is possible for the court to modify the judgment.

There were no reasons offered by the judge for denying punitive damages.

Here we have the usual two suspects, it (more frequent) and there. They are indeed the grammatical subjects of these two sentences. But when you consider the core meaning of each sentence – who did what to whom – you see that it and there are mere stand-ins. Let’s rewrite each sentence, starting with the actor: court and judge, respectively.

The court can modify the judgment.

The judge gave no reasons for denying punitive damages.

Note that as a bonus we have shorter sentences. As we’ll see in future episodes, plain English often means shortening your sentences. We’ll discuss several techniques along the way.

Of course, it is a perfectly fine pronoun when it stands for something (note the second use in this very sentence). And there is quite useful when you want to point out something in plain sight.

Let’s have a look at a few more examples of dummy subjects. (I’ve left 2 revision boxes blank so you can give it a try).

It is clear that the summons was not properly served.

Clearly the summons was not properly served.

It is  my considered judgment that the documents will require your amendment.

I think you need to amend the documents.

There are a number of issues that must be considered.

 

It is incumbent upon me to remind you that  …

 

Dummy subjects are very common in speaking and writing, and I often catch myself using them. So don’t feel like a dummy if you do the same. Just think: “how could I reword this sentence for greater clarity?”

Dummy subjects are mostly a problem in longer, more complicated sentences. What do you think of these two?

It’s raining.

There’s no beer in the fridge.

They sound OK, no? Indeed, how could you eliminate the dummies? “The rain is not falling” or “Beer is absent from the fridge”? So as always, our advice is to use your good judgment. That’s the best defense against dummies of all kinds.

See you next time!

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bill-lawrence

Bill Lawrence worked in US law firms and multinational companies until 2001. For the past 15 years Bill has been a writing coach at the Polytechnic University’s Centre for Business and Professional English. He has also presented seminars to law firms on coaching lawyers on effective writing.

Published by Hughes Castell

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