Monthly Archives: January 2012

Change the subject: three ways

Every complete sentence contains two parts: the subject and the predicate. The subject is what the sentence is about. It’s the doer. The predicate consists of the verb and all of its modifiers and other words that receive the action. A simple example is “Donna sang.” “Donna” is the subject.

Many writers lose sight of a sentence’s subject. Here are three ways.

1. Dangling modifiers

We often hear commercial advertisements saying things like this: “As a mother, my family’s nutrition is important.” What is the subject of that sentence?

“My family’s nutrition.”

What is the predicate?

“Is important.”

So what is “As a mother” modifying?

The writer of that script intended the speaker (“I”) to be the subject. But the sentence doesn’t work because it has a dangling participle. The intended subject isn’t even in the sentence. The sentence must be recast so the subject is the noun that the writer intended to modify. Here’s one correct way the ad could have been written:

“As a mother, I believe my family’s nutrition is important.”

Now, the subject is “I” and the verb is “believe.” (The subject is being modified by “As a mother,” as the writer intended.)

Here’s another example:

(Faulty) As a pediatrician, parents often ask what brand I recommend.

(Improved) I’m a pediatrician. Parents often ask what brand I recommend.

2. Say what

“What” and “whatever” can be sentence subjects. For example:

“Whatever you choose will be fine.”

But sometimes, clauses beginning with “what” make a cumbersome subject. For example:

“What I have already forgotten about sailing in the bay could fill a small book.”

The subject of that sentence consists of the entire clause ending in “bay.” It’s unwieldy. A writer with good awareness of the subject might instead write:

“I could fill a small book with my forgotten knowledge about sailing in the bay.”

Now, the subject is “I.”

3. Laziness

In casual conversation, people often use sentences with the subject it. An example is, “It is a sunny day.” That’s not grammatically wrong, and it’s fine for talking with friends. But careful writers should try harder. After all, what exactly is “it”?  It, used this way, is referred to as an expletive pronoun or a dummy pronoun. In writing, the subject usually can be identified, and the sentence can be made clearer and stronger as a result. “The sky is clear today.” Or, “Sunshine is abundant today.”

Here’s another example:

(Faulty) It is easy to start a walking program. (The subject is the vague “it.”)

(Improved) Starting a walking program is easy. (The subject is the gerund “starting a walking program.”)

(Even better) Walking programs are easy to start. (The subject is “walking programs.”)

Here’s an example of a similarly weak construction using “there”:

(Faulty) There is another finding in the study that casts doubt on the results. (The subject is the nebulous “there,” whatever that is. The verb is “is”—a being verb.)

(Improved) Another finding in the study casts doubt on the results. (Now the subject is “another finding.” The verb is “casts doubt”—an action verb, so it’s stronger.)

After reading three or four sentences that begin with “It is” and “There are,” the reader may begin to think a report or proposal seems weak, vague, or lazy. The writer should change the subject.

Writers of strong, clear sentences place modifiers correctly, avoid unnecessarily bulky subjects, and identify subjects.

Leave a comment

Filed under clear writing, editing, grammar