Writers know words are important. After all, words build our stories and give them meaning, but there are some words that don’t refer to anything and can weaken your writing.
Those words are called empty subjects.
What Are Empty Subjects?
Empty subjects are subjects that don’t mean anything. We speak with them all the time, and the two most common ones are “it” and “there”.
It is sunny.
It is one o’clock.
It was a shame that we had to leave early.
It should be everyone’s right to have clean air and water.
There were ink stains on the table.
There are some snacks in the kitchen.
There are so many weeds in my backyard!
There is a spider in my bed.
In all of those examples, “it” and “there” didn’t mean or refer to anything. “It” didn’t act as a normal pronoun because it didn’t take the place of any noun.
Subjects aren’t the only ones that can be empty. Direct objects can be empty too.
She doesn’t like it when you don’t clean your dishes.
How long will it be before we’re seated?
I find it amazing that you passed all your AP courses.
What’s Wrong With Empty Subjects?
Empty subjects themselves are not bad. We use them all the time, they’re grammatically correct, and sometimes they convey a message faster than a specific subject. Using them from time to time is perfectly okay. However, because empty subjects lack meaning, they can weaken your writing, especially if you use them all the time. Writing is all about choosing the best and strongest words—words full of meaning.
Let’s rewrite some of our earlier examples and see the difference.
1. “It is sunny.”
Rewrite: “The sun blazes up above.”
2. “It was a shame that we had to leave early.”
Rewrite: “I can’t believe we had to leave early. What a shame!”
3. “There were ink stains on the table.”
Rewrite: “Ink stained the table.”
4. “There are so many weeds in my backyard!”
Rewrite: “Weeds are taking over my backyard!”
The rewritten sentences are stronger and make the writing more interesting. Using specific subjects will boost your writing.
Again, using empty subjects from time to time is fine, but let’s look an example where we overuse them in a paragraph:
“It was raining when I stepped out of my car. Pulling my hood over my head, I ran across the street to the café– the place where I was supposed to meet Bill. It was a surprise to me that my cynical ex wanted to talk there. There were inspirational phrases on the walls, heart-shaped cakes in the desserts display, and pink roses on the tables. It seemed that this place was the girliest spot in town! When I entered, there was only a clerk and a barista. It looked like Bill was going to be late.”
Now let’s look at a stronger version:
“Rain poured when I stepped out of my car. Pulling my hood over my head, I ran across the street to the café– the place where I was supposed to meet Bill. The café was the last spot I thought my cynical ex would want us to talk. After all, inspirational phrases hung on the walls, the desserts display was filled with heart-shaped cakes, and pink roses lay scattered all over the tables. This place was the girliest spot in town! When I entered, a clerk stood behind the cashier and a barista cleaned the tables. Nobody else was here. Bill was late.”
Other Problems with Empty Subjects:
Sometimes, I call empty subjects “it” and “this” sentences because a writer is unintentionally using empty pronouns as subjects. In this case, the writer uses a pronoun, usually “it” or “this”, to refer to a whole phrase or sentence. The writer thinks the pronoun is taking the place of something, but it’s not, therefore making the subject empty. I normally find this problem in non-fiction manuscripts rather than fiction projects.
Here’s an example:
“Once the sun set, the dog barked nonstop, the children banged doors, and the indoor pipes clanked. This went on for hours.”
“This” is an empty subject because it’s not truly taking the place of anything. I understand the writer is trying to convey that all the chaos and noises went on for hours, but the word “this” cannot take the place of that whole sentence. That usage is grammatically incorrect.
A better way to write this sentence is, “Once the sun set, the dog barked nonstop, the children banged doors, and the indoor pipes clanked. All these noises went on for hours.”
Another problem with empty subjects is that they can cause writers to tell instead of show. I’ve already discussed this topic on my blog, and you can click here to read my post. Telling usually involves weak, vague words, and empty subjects are vague and weak. My first example from up above (“it is sunny”) is telling while my rewrite (“the sun blazes up above”) is showing.
Strong Words. Strong Sentences:
Writing is all about finding the best word and making each one count. Empty subjects themselves are not bad, and it’s fine to use them from time to time. However, using too many will weaken your writing. Readers will be more engaged in your novel when the writing is strong and uses each word to its fullest potential.