Dummy Subjects

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Defining the Dummy Subject

What exactly are dummy subjects? Dummy subjects are expletive words—words that take up space without adding meaning. It and there are commonly used dummy subjects in English, and generally occur in phrases like there is, there are, there was, there were, it is, and it was. Because they are usually unnecessary and wordy, avoid using dummy subjects whenever possible!

Note: the phrases mentioned above are not always dummy subjects, since they can sometimes refer to something specific. Observe the difference between “It is a nice day” and “My mom gave me a new laptop, and it is nice.” See how “it” in the first sentence merely fills space? A more specific, concise version would be “Today is a nice day.” However, in the second sentence “it” refers directly to the laptop, so it is not a dummy subject.

Dummy subjects are not grammatically incorrect; indeed, we use them very often in everyday spoken English (“It’s nice to meet you”; “There’s a lot of snow today”). When used rarely and mindfully, even in academic writing they can be effective. However, they do add extra fluff and filler that usually slow your reader down and take up valuable space. Even more importantly, they lessen the impact of your writing by allowing you to use bland verbs (usually forms of “to be”) instead of more potent, vivid verbs. Since sentences without dummy subjects typically have more action and more immediacy, removing a dummy subject will allow your reader to grasp your meaning more quickly.

Examples

Because it contains fewer words and the verb (“filled”) is more vivid, this second sentence has more action and is preferable to the first.

Similarly, this second sentence is shorter and more vivid because of the verb (“fall”). This makes the second sentence a better choice than the first.

Adapted from Lydia Fash and Robert Cochran, University Writing Program, 2020.