‘There’ and ‘It’–An Observation

I’ve been doing a lot of writing lately, mostly for a course in science fiction I’m taking, and I’ve become more and more aware of a very common grammatical construction that virtually all writers (including me) use.  And use almost to distraction.  I’m talking about two particular phrases, each of which comes in several forms: “there is” or “there are” and its past tense versions “there was” and “there were” on one hand, and “it is” or “it was” on the other.  Actually, I’ve been aware of these forms for a long time, but lately they’ve been grating on my mind more than usual.  Why?  I think it’s because (see, I used one there) both phrases are so indefinite and hard to pin down.  I’ve noticed them cropping up in my writing and I’ve begun to try to avoid them if possible, even recasting a sentence if necessary.  It isn’t always possible, though, especially in dialogue.

Take the “there is/are/was/were” construction.  “There” is usually a direction–someone says, “Over there,” and points.  To say, for example, “There is no way I’m doing that,” or some such comment is to use “there” in such an indefinite manner as to make defining “there” almost impossible.  Where is the “there” in this phrase?  It doesn’t refer to a direction and is practically meaningless.  Some more examples:  There is no time like the present.  There will be plenty of time.  And so on.

The other common irritating phrase includes the word “it.”  “It” is usually a pronoun referring to a specific object.  But when used, for example, in the phrase, “It is time to go,” or “It took time to…” it becomes less a pronoun and more a vague, nebulous something that satisfies our need for a word to fill a grammatical void.  In this situation, the object the “it” refers to is largely unknown.  Take the sentence, “It’s snowing out.”  “It” is the subject of the sentence and “snowing” the verb, but what is “it” that’s snowing?  The weather?  Not exactly.  The “weather” doesn’t snow.  The snow is the weather.  Weather exists all the time, and snow is only one manifestation of weather.  So is a bright sunny day.  So what is it that’s snowing?  I can’t imagine.

In short, I’m trying to reduce my use of these problematic phrases in my writing, though I don’t have any real illusions I’ll be able to eliminate them entirely.  Both are so heavily ingrained into the English language that everyone uses them.  They appear in writing all the time, and we use them in speaking even more frequently.  But what the hell, they’re good targets to shoot at and it’s challenging (another one) to see what I can do about them.

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