GrammarPhile Blog

Don’t Be Fooled by False Subjects

Posted by Terri Porter   Jan 21, 2015 7:00:00 AM

true_false_graphicBecause January is a big month for exercise resolutions, our posts this month focus on whipping your writing into better shape.

One way to do that is to eliminate false subjects. These seemingly innocuous phrases bulk a sentence up and make its meaning harder to discern — not unlike the pesky spare tire that can obscure your waistline after the holidays.

True or False?

You’ll usually find false subjects at the beginning of sentences, jockeying for attention while the real subject gets lost in the fray. These windbags typically take the form of “It is/was” and “There is/are.” Here’s an example:

There is reason to believe that the company will not meet its projected earnings for the third quarter.

What’s happening here? The news is bad, so the author has padded it (consciously or not) to ease its delivery. The reality is that the company likely will not meet its projected third-quarter earnings, but the phrase “There is reason to believe” makes that message equivocal. In this way, false subjects can be the grammatical equivalent of “don’t shoot the messenger.”

Even when the news is good or neutral, writers may use false subjects to appear more objective. Although false subjects do distance writers from the content, unfortunately, they also distance readers and get in the way of the primary goal of good writing — to communicate effectively.

The use of false subjects (along with passive voice, which we’ll discuss here) is especially rampant in business, government, scientific/technical, financial/investment and legal writing. Here’s an example from a law firm alert that came through

It is expected that USCIS regulations may be changed to permit those with approved I-140s to file an Adjustment of Status application in advance of their priority date becoming current.

This 30-word sentence is cumbersome and unclear. In addition to general wordiness, the phrase “It is expected” suggests that something is likely to happen. But the subsequent “may be changed” implies it’s only a possibility. The resulting interpretation is that the possibility of change is likely. What?!

Making the False True

Finding false subjects isn’t as easy as rooting out “there are,” “it is” and similar variants, although that’s a good start. Once you’ve found one of these phrases, identify the true subject and verb and move them to the start of the sentence if possible. In the previous example, “USCIS regulations” is the subject, and “change” is the verb. Putting the actual subject and verb front and center (and eliminating the extra words) makes the sentence’s meaning much clearer, as shown in this 23-word revision:

USCIS regulations likely will change to permit those with I-140s to file an Adjustment of Status application before their priority date becomes current.

Finding false subjects can be more challenging when the subject and verb aren’t mentioned:

There is some speculation as to whether importing more oil will be found necessary.

Who’s speculating? Who decides whether importing more oil is necessary? If you know the answers to these questions, you can easily reconstruct the sentence by putting the true subject and verb first:

The administration must decide whether to import more oil.

Even if you can’t determine the specific “who,” you can often use the context to determine generally who or what is the subject:

Whether the U.S. will need to import more oil is a key question.

If you don’t know (or don’t want to name) the responsible entity, you can reconstruct the sentence to position the central concept as the subject:

Whether more oil will need to be imported is a key question.

If you can easily get rid of the false subject, do it. If doing so makes the sentence more awkward or formal or has no effect on clarity, leave it alone. For example, you could change “There are a few reasons for this phenomenon” to “This phenomenon occurs for a few reasons,” but why bother?

Finally, keep in mind that “it,” rather than being a false subject, is sometimes a pronoun that refers to something mentioned earlier (antecedent) and is perfectly fine, as in this example:

This manual addresses the requirements of title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act …. It is one of a series of publications issued by federal agencies ….

You always have multiple choices in writing, and the context matters too. But generally, your message will ring more true without false subjects.


Topics: business writing, technical writing, government writing, financial writing, scientific writing, legal writing

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