The Ten Commandments of Writing

5. Thou Shalt Not Start a Sentence with the Words “It” or “There” Unless the Antecedent Is Clear, Appropriate, and Nearby

Photo by Corinne Kutz on Unsplash

In the Bible’s Old Testament, God speaks directly to Moses and gives him the Ten Commandments. Fortunately, a similar code exists for writers. The fifth commandment of writing follows.

5. Thou Shalt Not Start a Sentence with the Words “It” or “There” Unless the Antecedent Is Clear, Appropriate, and Nearby.

There is nothing more annoying than an essay that begins with the word “there.” It drives me crazy. It’s really irritating, too, when students begin their essays with the word “it.” There has to be a better way. Generally speaking, when you write, you should avoid using the words “there” and “it” as the first word of an essay, a paragraph, or a sentence.

Using “there” and “it” to begin an essay can be troublesome because those two words are used primarily as pronouns, words that take the place of nouns. (A noun is a person, place, thing, or idea.) Typically, “there” is used to refer to places or locations, and “it” is used to refer to objects or experiences. Here are some examples of the correct use of these pronouns.

“I grew up in Amsterdam. There, I played baseball, delivered newspapers, and fell in love with Noreen. I took Noreen to the Sophomore Soiree on my first date. It was a night to remember.”

In the preceding paragraph, the word “there” refers to Amsterdam, and the word “it” refers to “my first date.” The connections are clear because the noun “Amsterdam” directly precedes the pronoun “there,” and the noun “date” directly precedes the pronoun “it.” Unfortunately, when you use the pronouns “there” and “it” at the beginning of an essay, your reader has no previous nouns to refer to. These nouns that precede the pronouns are called “antecedents,” and if your opening sentence does not have an antecedent, that sentence is not as strong or as clear as it could be.

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Photo by steve sawusch on Unsplash

For example, one student began his term paper in this way: “There are four main arguments against legalized gambling.” Another student approached the same assignment with this sentence: “It is almost impossible to win the Lottery.” Obviously, the first student is not using the pronoun “there” to refer to a place or a location, and the second student is not using the pronoun “it” to refer to an object but to an experience that has not yet been mentioned. Thus, these sentences could say the same things and be so much stronger if they were rewritten as follows: “Four main arguments against legalized gambling stand out,” and “Winning the Lottery is almost impossible.”

Other mistakes involving the pronouns “there” and “it” generally have to do with the placement of the nouns that precede them. Look at the following sentence: “I visited California and Kansas this summer, and the ocean views there were tremendous.” Obviously, this writer is referring to the ocean views in California, but that’s not what the sentence says. The way the sentence is set up, the pronoun “there” refers back to the previous location: Kansas. Readers who are unfamiliar with American geography might assume incorrectly that Kansas has ocean views. The sentence should read as follows: “I visited Kansas and California this summer, and the ocean views there were tremendous.”

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Photo by OC Gonzalez on Unsplash

Look at the next sentence for a similar error. “I left my wallet in the library, and I haven’t seen it since.” Most readers would understand that the writer lost his wallet, but technically speaking, either the library has disappeared or the writer hasn’t returned to the library since he left his wallet there. Again, the way the sentence is set up, the pronoun “it” refers back to the previous noun: library. The sentence should read as follows: “I haven’t seen my wallet since I left it in the library.”

Finally, when you use the pronouns “there” and “it” in your sentences, you should also make sure that the nouns you’re referring to are nearby. Consider this long sentence: “I brought my guitar, my laptop, and my camera with me, and we visited numerous county fairs and craft shows during the summer months when the crowds were really big, and I think it was stolen in Idaho.” By the time you got to the end of the sentence, did you know what had been stolen? Most likely, you had to go back and re-read the sentence to determine that the pronoun “it” referred to the camera.

The sentence was written correctly, but if the reader has to re-read a portion of the sentence to figure out the correct meaning, the sentence is not as clear as it should be. In this case, the writer should have repeated the word “camera”: “I brought my guitar, my laptop, and my camera with me, and we visited numerous county fairs and craft shows during the summer months when the crowds were really big, and I think my camera was stolen in Idaho.”

In normal conversation, you probably use the pronouns “there” and “it” often at the beginning of your sentences, especially when you’re surprised. For instance, you may say, “There’s a rat down there,” or “It’s freezing outside.” When you’re writing, however, you generally have more time to choose your words, and you may want to be more precise and less emotional: “A rat is living in the basement,” or “The temperature is 10 degrees below zero.” So as you review your essays and term papers, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Do I really want to start my essay — or my paragraph or my sentence — with the pronouns “there” or “it”?
  2. Do the pronouns “there” and “it” refer correctly to previously mentioned nouns?
  3. Are the previously mentioned nouns nearby, so the reader will know exactly what I’m writing about without having to back up and re-read a particular sentence?

Written by

Jim LaBate works as a writing specialist in The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York.

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