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When there’s a ‘there’ there

Q: Some academic colleagues and I have lamented the tendency of other colleagues to write ponderous sentences that begin with “There is” and go on with something such as “a tendency for regulators to ignore the demands of the market.” Do you agree with our biases against “There is” constructions?

A: No, we don’t.

We do agree that a sentence like “There is a tendency for regulators to ignore the demands of the market” would be much stronger as “Regulators tend to ignore the demands of the market.”

And it’s true that many handbooks of writing lament the so-called “dummy,” “pleonastic,” or “expletive” construction, names given to sentences beginning with “It is,” “There is,” or “There are.” Granted, too much of this can make a person’s writing seem weak and tedious.

But the usage shouldn’t be condemned outright. The use of  “it” or “there” as an anticipatory or preparatory subject can be quite useful and in some cases necessary. In fact, great writers have used the construction memorably. Here are two examples from Shakespeare:

“There is a tide in the affairs of men, / Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune” (from Julius Caesar, believed written in 1599).

“It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock / The meat it feeds on” (from Othello, probably written in 1603).

Getting back to the mundane, how else would we talk about the weather? (“It’s sleeting” … “It looks like snow” … “There’s a chance of rain.”)

And in many other types of statements, “it” or “there” is the most reasonable way of beginning.

Constructions like “There’s no way of knowing” and “It’s likely they’ll lose” and “It’s been established that he’s guilty” are more natural and idiomatic than the alternatives (“No way of knowing exists” … “That they’ll lose is likely” … “That he’s guilty has been established”).

In fact, when a subordinate clause is the subject of a sentence (as in those last two examples), the clause routinely follows the verb and the dummy subject “it” precedes the verb.

As the Oxford English Dictionary says, “The subord. clause as subject is most commonly placed after the verb and introduced by a preceding it, e.g. ‘it is certain that he was there’ = ‘that he was there, is certain.’ ” The dictionary’s examples date as far back as the 700s.

In some cases, the use of “it” or “there” as a dummy subject, with the real one placed after the verb, is a handy way to emphasize an element.  “There’s a fly in my soup,” with the delayed stress on “fly,” is more effective than the deadpan “A fly is in my soup.”

The OED also discusses “there” as a “mere anticipative element occupying the place of the subject which comes later.” Its citations from English writing date back to the 800s.

This construction can be used, Oxford says, “for the sake of emphasis or preparing the hearer.” The dictionary illustrates with these examples: “there comes a time when [etc.]” and “there was heard a rumbling noise.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language has this example of “it” in an extremely common English construction: “It upset me that she didn’t write.”

Here “it” is a “dummy pronoun filling the subject position,” write the authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum. The meaning of the sentence, they say, is the same as “That she didn’t write upset me.”

But “it” can also fill the object position. The Cambridge Grammar uses this example, which would be difficult to express in any other way: “I find it strange that no one noticed the error.”

In that case, the authors write, the dummy pronoun “it” fills the object position, replacing a true object that has been “extraposed”—the “embedded content clause” beginning with “that.”

We’ve written several times about dummy constructions, including posts in 2015 (about the use of “it” in talking about the weather); in 2014 (about using “it” to clarify a murky subordinate clause); and in 2013 (when the logical subject is an infinitive, as in “It was futile to resist”).

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