by Valerie Balester, UWC Executive Director
This article was re-published from our faculty blog, Stand and Deliver, from May 17, 2010.
In novice writing, you’ll often discern three fairly common patterns, often all three together on the same page. Turn your attention to the subjects of independent clauses, often, but not always, the first clause in a sentence. Look for clauses that begin with:
- “there” + a “to be” verb, as in “there is”
- “it” + a “to be” verb, as in “it is”
- “this,” “that,” “these” or “those” + a verb (often “to be”), as in “this is” or “that means”
Sometimes, this results in wordiness and ambiguity. It may be unclear what “this” indicates. Also, there is a problem with rhythm and stringiness.
Or, to put it another way: Starting independent clauses with this pattern can result in wordiness, ambiguity caused by confusion about the meaning of “this,” or a stringy mass with no rhythm. Grammar books and style guides explain that “there is” and “it is” used in this way are “expletives,” meaning words that stand in for other words. “It is” or “this is” substitutes for the real subject of the clause. The demonstrative pronouns (“this,” “that,” “these,” “those,”) substitute for words implied or mentioned elsewhere.
Of course, it’s [yes, I use the word advisedly] important not to be prescriptive and banish every use of the “there” or “this” expletive. A well-positioned expletive can be effective in writing—I would not want to take away a tool that can delay or de-emphasize a subject, provide variety in sentence patterns, or alter sentence rhythm, and the expletive can do all three. Writers also need demonstrative pronouns to help create cohesion in prose—a nicely placed “this” can help avoid repetition. However, novice writers need to have control over their expletives (of every type, including the risqué variety).
A good revision strategy starts with identifying expletives. The writer can decide whether to combine sentences, add a clear subject, or delete the expletive and put the focus back on the real subject of the clause. The examples below, which I have culled from student papers, can demonstrate the revision strategy. I’ve altered the words somewhat to protect identity, but I have not altered the patterns.
In 2006 erosion was at 42%, and in 2009 the percentage was only 13%. This is proof that conditions are improving.
Revision Strategy: Often it is best to simply combine the “this” sentence with the one it modifies.
In 2006 erosion was at 42%, and in 2009 only 13, proof that conditions are improving.
The more desired vegetation decreases over time and allows invasive species to encroach. This is especially undesirable as these invasive species can often have less nutritional value.
Revision Strategy: As in Example 1, the sentences can be combined; A noun has to be substituted for “this,” and a dash can add extra emphasis to the important point made in the second sentence.
The more desired vegetation decreases over time and allows invasive species to encroach—an especially undesirable result, as these invasive species can often have less nutritional value.
There are several different teaching styles that can be used in a classroom. These styles are different from one another, having their own unique characteristics. The Command Style is teacher-centered. This style occurs when the teacher has complete control of the talking and tasks in the classroom.
Revision Strategy: Refocus the first on teaching styles and combine the first sentence with the second. Then combine the last two, as in the first two examples.
Several teaching styles can be used in a classroom, all having their own unique characteristics. The Command Style, which occurs when the teacher has complete control of the talking and tasks in the classroom, is teacher-centered.
There is no pension plan for teachers' aides. This keeps expenses down. This is fair, considering the compensation plan in place.
Revision strategy: What is important here? What do the “this” pronouns refer to? Depending on the intent, the sentence could be revised in different ways.
Teachers’ aides have no pension plan, which is necessary to keep expenses down and is fair, considering their generous [?] compensation plan.
Expenses are kept down by providing a generous compensation plan, but no pension plan, for teachers’ aides.
There is an immediate bond between the subject matter and reader, an unavoidable emotional attachment achieved through the relevance of the article to everyday life. This personal connection between the reader and what is being read serves as an appeal to the emotions of the audience.
Revision Strategy: First, a deep breath. Then find the real subject (bond or personal connection) and combine the sentences.
An immediate bond between the subject matter and reader, an unavoidable emotional attachment, is achieved through the relevance of the article to everyday life, creating a personal connection to the text that appeals to the readers’ emotions.
I’m not suggesting these revisions go far enough, but they are an improvement. The hardest part of revising, especially for novices, is recognizing what needs attention. Start small. Teach them this trick, and see if it doesn’t help.