Don’t let your subjects be dummies

Dummy subjects and smothered verbs are usually "couch potato words"--just sitting there taking up space.

Dummy subjects and smothered verbs are usually “couch potato words”–just sitting there taking up space.

“Omit needless words” is one piece of stellar, timeless advice from the oft-maligned (with good reason) Strunk and White. Nonetheless, I see a lot writing filled with what I call “couch potato words” – words that just sit there, doing nothing and eating your chips.

Two constructions that are good examples of “couch potato words” are dummy subjects and smothered verbs.Dummy subjects occur when an empty phrase – usually “there are,” “it is,” “this is” and so on – leads off the sentence, pushing the real subject back and making a sentence needlessly wordy. Another pitfall is that sometimes the pronoun “this” or “it” has an unclear antecedent, so readers get confused.

Dummy subject constructions are grammatical, so when you run into a sentence that can’t be reworded, it’s fine. But dummy subjects are usually unnecessarily wordy and indirect. So make sure the antecedent is clear, and see whether the sentence would be clearer with a more direct construction.

Example: There is one item the committee voted on: new signs.

Better: The committee voted on one item: new signs.

Smothered verbs happen when a verb gets replaced with a wordier verb-noun phrase, such as “made a decision” instead of “decided,” “held a meeting” instead of “met,” and so on.

Example: An eminent presidential scholar gave a lecture on the 2016 campaigns.

Better: An eminent presidential scholar lectured on the 2016 campaigns.

Again, these constructions are grammatical, but usually a straightforward verb would be better. As always, let clarity be your guide.

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