Dummy Subjects: It and There

Summary

The words it and there are used as dummy subjects to fill the slot of subject in sentences without one. Dummy subjects help introduce weather, time, and date references, and situations in general.

Examples
  • It’s raining.
    Not “Is raining.”
  • It is six in the morning.
  • It’s Thursday, the first of January.
  • It’s all right.
  • It’s no use crying.
  • It’s my first time baking a cake.
  • There’s some cake for you on the table.
  • There is always something more important to do than clean your fridge.

What is a dummy subject?

A dummy subject conveys no meaning of its own but simply fills the position of subject in a sentence. The subject is whom or what a sentence is about. It usually precedes the verb.

Examples
  • Maya wants to travel the world.
  • We don’t know where Poco is.
  • The book you were looking for is on the bookshelf.

A sentence must have a subject. When one isn’t available, the pronouns it and there fill this position.

Examples
  • It is raining today.
    Not “is raining today.”
  • There is no way Farley can win this match.
    Not “Is no way Farley can win this match.”

Note how dummy subjects don’t refer to anything specific. Compare this with it being used as a pronoun in place of a specific noun.

Example
  • Look at this wooden table. It is three hundred years old.
    In this sentence, it refers to something specific: a wooden table. Therefore, the word isn’t being used as a dummy subject.
Tip

The dummy subject is variously called a fake, artificial, or empty subject.

It as dummy subject

The pronoun it is used as a dummy subject in references to time, weather, and dates. The dummy it doesn’t refer to anything specific but is still needed to fill the slot of subject in a sentence.

Examples
  • It’s sunny outside—the perfect day for a picnic.
  • It is 3 a.m., and I’m wide awake.
  • It’s the third of December today.
  • Where I come from, it is cold in summer and colder in winter.

It is also used as a dummy subject to refer to situations or a set of circumstances.

Examples
  • It’s five miles to the nearest hospital.
  • It’s no trouble at all.
  • It’s a strange world we live in.
  • It seems as though we wasted our time.
  • It’s getting dark, and we should go home.
  • It’s the perfect day for a picnic.
Tip

The pronoun it as a dummy subject is also called the nonreferential or empty it.

Anticipatory it

The pronoun it can be used to refer to a real subject that appears later in the sentence. Positioning the subject at the end rather than start of a sentence helps place end-focus on the subject.

Examples
  • It is important to be happy in your own body.
    The real subject in this sentence is “to be happy in your own body.” We could also say, “To be happy in your own body is important,” but that would sound oddly formal.
  • It is unfortunate that you missed the train.
  • It’s wonderful that you found each other.
  • It seems inevitable now that she will find out what happened.
  • It feels strange to have finally won.
  • It was in May that I first met him.
  • It’s me you should blame.
  • It’s funny how cats like cheese.

In such usage, the word it appears before the logical subject. In other words, it anticipates the subject and is called the anticipatory it.

Note

The anticipatory it is not strictly a dummy subject, since it does refer to something real that follows in the sentence. However, it is still often classified as a fake subject because it replaces a real one.

There as dummy subject

The word there is used as a dummy subject to say that a situation exists. In such usage, there does not refer to anything specific but merely introduces the situation.

Examples
  • There are two ways to solve this problem.
  • There is something we need to discuss.
  • Is there anything I can do to help?
  • There’s a storm coming!
  • There’s no pleasing some people.
  • There is nothing we can do.
  • There is a grocery store around the corner.
  • There’s a cat on your laptop.
Tip

The dummy there is also called the existential, introductory, anticipatory, or nonreferential there.

When to use a dummy subject

Although some writers and editors dislike the use of it and there as dummy subjects, this usage is extremely common and completely idiomatic, seen in all forms of speech and writing. In fact, not using the dummy subject in certain constructions can sound odd and lay unnecessary emphasis on the real subject.

Examples
  • Preferred: There is some cake left.
    Poor: Some cake is left.
    Might be phrased this way in answer to the question “What is left?” but sounds odd otherwise.
  • Preferred: There is no hope for us anymore.
    Poor: No hope exists for us anymore.
  • Preferred: There’s a supermarket around the corner.
    Poor: A supermarket is around the corner.
    Unidiomatic, unless in answer to the question “What is around the corner?” and then too the answer would simply be “A supermarket” instead of the complete sentence.
  • Preferred: There is a goat grazing in your garden.
    Poor: A goat is grazing in your garden.
  • Preferred: It is important to be honest with one another.
    Poor: To be honest with one another is important.
Caution

How-to books on writing sometimes warn against using the dummy or fake subject. Be careful: avoiding dummy subjects altogether can make your writing sound stilted and unnatural. It is perfectly normal and idiomatic to use dummy subjects in English (like the word it at the start of this sentence).

Overuse: How to fix

In formal writing, which demands a more direct style, dummy subjects can make sentences sound vague and verbose. To fix wordiness, identify sentences that start with it is, there is, and there are, and check if these can be rephrased to be more concise. In particular, sentences that refer to an action or event rather than a situation can be improved by omitting the dummy subject and providing a real one.

Examples
  • Poor: There were forty research papers that we reviewed.
    Better: We reviewed forty research papers.
  • Poor: There are five candidates they interviewed today.
    Better: They interviewed five candidates today.

Also examine whether sentences beginning with phrases like “it is clear that” and “it is believed that” can be rewritten to be more direct with a clearer subject.

Examples
  • Poor: It was evident that the experiment had failed.
    Better: Evidently, the experiment had failed.
  • Poor: It is believed that the probability of an alien species visiting our little planet is negligible.
    Better: Scientists believe that the probability of an alien species visiting our little planet is negligible.
  • Poor: It is clear that this phenomenon requires further investigation.
    Better: Clearly, this phenomenon requires further investigation.

If rephrasing makes the sentence sound awkward, leave the dummy subject be. Remember that dummy subjects are perfectly acceptable in idiomatic English.

Examples
  • Acceptable: It was necessary to cross-check the data against results from previous studies.
    Poor: To cross-check the data against results from previous studies was important.
  • Acceptable: There are three ways to guard against bias.
    Poor: Three ways exist to guard against bias.

Examples from literature

Here are some sentences from literature where the dummy subjects it and there are used to introduce a situation.

Examples
  • Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.
    Oscar Wilde, “The Critic as Artist,” Intentions (1891)
  • It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
    George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Novel (1949)
  • There is no story that is not true,’ said Uchendu.
    Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (1958)
  • There is no doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth.
    Doris Lessing, Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1949 (1994)
  • There was no one to whom he could explain that in order to survive he needed to be at altitude, a Himalayan altitude, so he might breathe.
    Anita Desai, The Artist of Disappearance (2011)

Quick Quiz

Which of these contains a subject?
Choose from these answers
All done!
In which of these is the pronoun it used as a dummy subject?
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Which of these contains a dummy subject?
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Should the dummy subject always be avoided?
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Which of these sounds more natural?
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Which is better style in formal writing?
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All done!

Did You Know?

To show whole hours, the minute may or may not be mentioned (8 p.m. or 8:00 p.m.).
Know more:Should Minutes Be Shown with AM and PM?