Tackling the Dummy Subject

Dummy subjects…expletive subjects…opening fillers…Whatever you call them, they can weaken sentences by making them wordy, less active, and sometimes unclear.

A dummy subject is the use of it or there with no clear referent:

  • It is important that we examine all of the data.
  • There are many people looking for jobs.

What do it and there refer to? More tightly constructed sentences might be written as follows:

  • We must examine all of the data.
  • Examining all of the data is important.
  • Many people are looking for jobs.

Sometimes dummy subjects are necessary to avoid an awkward sentence. For example, revisions of dummy subject in It snowed last Monday sound wordy and a bit stilted:

  • Last Monday’s weather included snow.
  • We saw snow last Monday.

As a bcomm instructor, I see dummy subjects a lot, despite my best efforts to get students to avoid them. My students report that they use dummy subjects out of habit and that they don’t fix them because they are unsure of how to do so. Frequently as I grade students’ work, I’ll develop a list of sentences with dummy subjects (and other structural issues) and take a few minutes in class to rewrite the sentences. Here is a Dummy Subject Review to use in your classroom. If you have strategies for addressing the dummy subject in your classes, please share them with us.

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