Starting Sentences with

by Precise Edit - Date: 2007-10-21 - Word Count: 1349 Share This!

It is what it is, isn't it?
It's a bad habit to start sentences with it. It causes your readers to pause momentarily while they figure out what it is. It makes your sentences clumsy. It is true that doing so is an easy way to write a sentence, but usually it is not good writing. It even becomes a bit annoying when you do it too often. It is bad to annoy your reader.

Starting sentences with it is a bad habit. Your readers will need to pause momentarily while they figure out what it is, and your sentences will be clumsy. Writing this way may be easy, but starting sentences with it is usually not a good idea. If you do this too often, you may annoy your readers, which is never a good idea. Precise Edit offers the following information to help you write well.

A. 3 Problems caused by starting sentences with It

Problem 1. Buried subject

In most sentences starting with it, the real subject is buried somewhere later in the sentence. By real subject, we don't mean the noun or pronoun performing the verb in the predicate, which is called the grammatical subject. We mean the person, idea, place, or thing that is the focus of the sentence, which is called the rhetorical subject. Consider this (poor) sentence:

It is a real challenge to find a good deal on a car.

In this sentence, it is serving as the grammatical subject because this word is in the subject place followed by the verb is. But what is this sentence about? It is about finding a good deal. [Note: We are willing to start this sentence with it because we have already told you what it is--this sentence.] Finding a good deal, therefore, is the rhetorical subject. When we put the rhetorical subject in the place of the grammatical subject, we get

To find a good deal on a car is a real challenge.

This can be further simplified to read

Finding a good deal on a car is a real challenge.

Now the grammatical subject and the rhetorical subject are the same. After editing, the sentence is more direct, and the reader immediately knows what we are writing about without having to wait, even momentarily, to figure out what it is. We have improved reader understanding, which is the goal of editing.

On the other hand, let's say you and your buddies are comparing all the daring, challenging things you have done in your lives. Everyone's life seems so exciting compared to your boring, unadventurous life. You want to prove that you are exciting, too, so you want to emphasize the challenge of finding a good deal on a car. In this case, you could rewrite the sentence as:

A real challenge is finding a good deal on a car.

(Oh, boy! That will really show them who's boss.) They may still doubt your derring-do, but they won't doubt your ability to write well. With this sentence construction, the rhetorical and grammatical subjects are the same, as in the revisions above. A good editor will always make sure this is true.

Fix 1: Make sure the rhetorical sentence is also the grammatical sentence--at the start of the sentence.

Problem 2. Redundancy

Precise Edit has a very firm rule about redundancy: Remove it. By redundancy we mean writing 2 or more words/phrases/clauses/etc. that have the same meaning. As seen in the discussion of the first problem, using it to start sentences has the added problem of two subjects (grammatical and rhetorical) that mean the same thing: It means finding a good deal on a car. We only need one of these. Of course, we want to use the more specific subject, not the vague it, which has no meaning by itself. When we place the rhetorical subject in the position of the grammatical subject, we are left with only one subject, and the redundancy has been removed.

Fix 1 (again): Make sure the rhetorical sentence is also the grammatical sentence--at the start of the sentence.

Sometimes it is buried in the sentence and still causes this redundancy. Consider this sentence:

We don't like it when writing is redundant.

In this case, it means when writing is redundant. To remove this redundancy, ask: What is it? You will answer: redundant writing.
An editor will get rid of it and add the answer to the question. Now we have

We don't like redundant writing.

Removing the redundancy has produced a far more economical and graceful sentence.

Fix 2: Remove redundant words and simplify the details.

Problem 3. Context confusion

Sometimes, the word it is used when the writer (or speaker) doesn't know what the subject is, doesn't want to reveal it, or thinks it is already clear. Of course, from the reader's perspective, the sentence may lose all meaning. The problem here is one of context. By context we mean the topic in which the sentence exists (i.e., what the sentence is about). The subject of a sentence, indeed, the entire sentence, needs to refer to the context, and using it may not do that. If someone asks you,

Do you like this car?

and you answer,

It is really nice.

your listener will know what you are talking about. He or she already knows the context of your statement: the quality of the car.

However, if you walk into a colleague's office and say,

It is difficult for me.

you might get a strange look in response. Your colleague doesn't know what you are talking about and might ask, "What is?" He or she is confused, rightly so, and you will need to explain the context of your statement. Instead, you could have originally said,

Making coffee is difficult for me.

You may still get a strange look, but at least your colleague knows what you are talking about.

Fix 3: Make sure the subject refers to the context of the sentence.

B. Burying It

You have to be careful with your revisions. The word it might be buried in the sentence and still cause the same problems. When you edit your sentences, you need to watch out for this. Consider this sentence:

You know it is bad to tease angry dogs.

This sentence doesn't start with it, but it suffers from problems 1 and 2. A good editor (or writer) understands how this sentence comprises one primary sentence and an embedded sentence. The primary sentence is You know, and the embedded sentence is It is bad to tease angry dogs. The embedded sentence has the problem and needs editing. You can revise it to read

Teasing angry dogs is bad.

The entire sentence will now read

You know [that] teasing angry dogs is bad.
(Hmm. We may now have a problem with the tone. If the person already knows this bit of wisdom, why are we saying it? Admitting that he or she already knows this seems a bit condescending. If we must make this statement at all, perhaps we should simply say Teasing angry dogs is bad and pretend that this is new information.)

C. Some fun (?) samples

It is clear to me that our main problem is the inability to fly without wings.

Our main problem is the inability to fly without wings.

[Since you said this, it must be clear to you! Saying It is clear to me is redundant]

It was a dark and stormy night.

The night was stormy.

[It means dark and stormy night, and most nights are dark.]

It only happens once every 70 years. Tomorrow night Halley's Comet will appear.

Halley's Comet only appears once every 70 years, but it will appear tomorrow night.

[This solves the context problem of the first sentence.]

It is a nice car you have in your driveway.

You have a nice car in your driveway.

[An even better solution might be A nice car is in your driveway, but this seems to lose the idea of ownership.]

Some people like it when the traffic lights aren't working because they can drive right through it.

Some people like broken traffic lights because they can drive right through the intersection.

[We would be very amused to see someone drive through the light!]

When you are ready for professional assistance, please contact Precise Edit.

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