Monday, March 16, 2009

Avoid "It is...." and "There are...." sentences.

Suppose you see this sentence, "It is to be expected that we write better." You might legitimately ask, "What is to be expected?" You might ask that because "It" is a pronoun and pronouns need antecedents or references.

I suggest you avoid beginning any sentence with "It is...." Even the harmless, "It is raining" bothers me. But, not so much as some of these other forms:

"It is possible that...,"
"It is significant that...,"
"It is obvious that...,"
"It should be noted that...,
"It it essential that...,"

and the many other forms that writers, especially bureaucratic writers, use.

This metadiscourse has been rightly called "throat clearing" because it adds nothing to a communication, just as a literal throat clearing before speaking adds nothing to the substance of a remark. When these written forms are used, they delay a message and often confuse a reader.

In a similar way, "There are...." sentences confuse readers. Take this sentence, for example, "There was an attempt to implement an activity in direct opposition to the wishes of the management." This will trouble readers for several reasons.

For one thing, we readers are unable to quickly find the subject of the sentence. The writer either doesn't know who is attempting to do something or wants to disguise the fact. This is troubling because readers want to know what is being affirmed in a sentence and they want to know about whom the action is being affirmed. In other words, they want to know the verb and the subject.

Also, readers in the West, as opposed to those in Arab or Chinese societies, read from left to right. In so doing, they like to see the sentence pattern "S-V-O" (even though they may not be consciously aware of it). That is, they want to see the subject of a sentence in front of the verb, not behind it. Any time you write a "There is (or) There are, (or) There will be...." sentence, you will put the subject after the verb.

And, speaking of the verb, if you write a "There are...." sentence, you will have used a "being verb" and we agreed in a previous post that "action verbs" work better in sentences, especially in business writing where we write for action. If you examine my "There are...." sentence above, you will also see that "attempt" and "opposition" are "nominals," that is, verbs that have been turned into nouns(see previous post). These are weakened verbs.

If you are going to attempt something, attempt it. Don't make an attempt. Use action verbs in S-V-O sentences. If someone is opposing something, have them oppose it. Don't put them in opposition. After all, it is better to hit the reader over the head with action because there are so many other things out there competing for their attention. Get it?!


  1. Thank you for shooting two of my pet peeves with one bullet. -Nan

  2. It's not immediately apparent to this reader what the issue is. There are many instances in everyday life of such sentence constructions, such as the ones you've brought up -- including the extremely valid "It is raining". It is just not possible to have every sentence, all the time, adopt the standard declarative S-V-O format. There is a certain validity to your point about bureaucratic metadiscourse, where the overall import conveyed by the overuse of the passive voice is that no one is responsible for anything, and therefore no one need make any sort of amends to anyone, etc. There are, however, many variations available to us in the English language as far as sentence construction goes. It would be severely limiting to proscribe this particular form of "existential" sentence construction simply based on an antiquated rule. It should be noted that other similar "rules" of English are in fact canards, perpetuated knowingly or unknowingly by overly-strict grammarians, such as the injunction not to end a sentence with a preposition, deriving from Latin rules, which is clearly nonsense. It is essential to note that language is an organic thing, and while we do want to enforce high standards of correct usage, we have to avoid becoming entrenched too much in rigid rules.

    I have naturally written all of the above with a certain point in mind. I am not overly confused by this category of "existential" sentences. I believe the main peeve you should be having is against its *contextual* usage, in acts of political handwaving.

  3. Along with "it" and "there" beginnings, "this" and "that" are similar vague words that should be replaced with exact language.