Dummy Pronouns

Why they are inadvisable and how they can be replaced


Pronouns represent nouns and allow discussion without repeatedly restating a noun. As the following example shows, a man’s convoluted name can be shortened to one syllable: he.


Paul Ludwig Hans Anton von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg was president of Germany.


He was president of Germany.


Not all pronouns fill this role, however. A dummy pronoun is a pronoun which does not reference anything and is exclusively syntactical. As such, dummy pronouns are semantically valueless and defeat the purpose of pronouns. They lengthen texts while contributing nothing.


It is necessary to examine the causes to prevent another war.


It is irrelevant whether he desired a negative outcome.


What does it reference in these examples? What is necessary to examine the causes? What is irrelevant whether he desired a negative outcome? Such questions make no sense, as there are no referents to be offered as answers. The subjects of these sentences are all meaningless dummies, yet they occupy the most prominent position of a sentence: the beginning.


Brevity is the soul of wit, as Shakespeare wrote, so removing unnecessary words like dummy subjects is important to make a text easier to comprehend.


How can this be done?


One must consider what a sentence means and find a subject which reflects this. Gerunds often work well, as the focus of a dummy subject sentence is often its verb.


Examining the causes is necessary to prevent another war.


In this example, two words were removed to produce a semantically identical sentence.


Not all dummy subjects can be replaced by gerunds, however.


In the second example, the second clause can function as a subject. This is acceptable with such a short example, but longer phrases might require more creative rephrasing due to the awkwardness of long clauses functioning as subjects.


Whether he desired a negative outcome is irrelevant.


There is a second kind of dummy pronoun: the dummy object. Like dummy subjects, such objects reference nothing and instead serve as modifications of verbs. These are typically colloquialisms which should not appear in academic texts.


He’s sick today, so he won’t make it to your party.


The teacher explained the equation, but I still don’t get it.


What does it mean in these sentences? What will not be made? What is not gotten? Again, these questions are nonsensical. Rephrasing these sentences can be accomplished by replacing the verb+it construction with a semantically equivalent verb. For this, one must consider the meaning of the dummy object’s verb.


He’s sick today, so he won’t come to your party.


The teacher explained the equation, but I still don’t understand.


In short: The best way to cure a disease is to prevent it. Similarly, the problem of rephrasing sentences to remove or replace dummy pronouns can be solved if one simply never uses them. Dummy pronouns should be disregarded in order to help texts be more concise and semantically impactful.


Tags: dummy pronoun, dummy subject, dummy object, rephrasing