Anticipating the 'anticipatory it.'

Dr. Mehmet Oz, the inexplicably mesmerizing TV physician, says his daytime "Dr. Oz Show" is a "no embarrassment zone." It's ironic that I'm even mentioning it, as I consider daytime TV viewing embarrassing. (Much of my misspent youth was spent basking in brain-numbing cathode rays when I should have been in school.)

Yet on a recent Tuesday afternoon, I sat alone in a hotel room in one of the most exciting cities in the world, watching the boob tube and learning that Oz and I have something in common.

I was in Las Vegas to give a seminar on sentence writing at the Society of Professional Journalists' convention. I was only in Vegas for eight hours, but I let the organizers put me up in a hotel room because I needed a home base — a place to veg out before, and after, my slightly scary public-speaking gig. And what better way to play ostrich than by escaping into a form of entertainment associated with bon-bons and bunny slippers?

When the seminar was over, I encouraged people to ask me grammar questions — stuff they always wanted to know, but were embarrassed to ask. A number of attendees raised their hands. Others waited till I was in the hallway outside to ask their questions in private. But unlike Dr. Oz, whose no-fear, no-shame policy draws questions about everything from numb private parts to injured private parts, I know that there's no embarrassment like grammar embarrassment.

Take, for example, the professional editor who had been taught that it's wrong to start a sentence with "it." She wanted to know: Is that true?

I don't blame her for being embarrassed. When we hear grammar directives issued with such certainty, it's only natural to assume the issuer knows what he's talking about. But then we notice that no one observes the supposed "rule," and we're left confused and a little ashamed.

The idea that you can't start a sentence with "it" was a new one on me. You can, I told her, start a sentence with any pronoun you like. I am here. He is here. She is here. It is here.

But then I realized that this baffling grammar myth may have morphed out of some good advice about something called the "anticipatory it."

Look at the sentence, "It is shocking that he is absent." Though most pronouns stand in for known nouns, this "it" doesn't point to a noun at all. This "it" seems more an abstract idea than a traditional pronoun.

According to the "Oxford English Grammar," this is the "anticipatory it," which is used to balance out a sentence in which the real subject is a clause. For example, in "That he was absent is shocking," the main verb is "is," and the subject of the sentence is the whole clause, "that he was absent." But that structure has a weird ring to it. So, for balance, we throw in the word "it" and let it head up the sentence: "It is shocking that he was absent."

Sometimes this structure can lead to bad choices. Take the sentence, "It is a well-known fact among longshoremen that lower back injuries are painful." That's really just a convoluted way of saying "Longshoremen know that lower back injuries are painful."

In the latter, we have a real, tangible subject performing a real action. That's a lot more lively than making the abstract "it" the main subject and the static "is" the main verb.

I suspect that's the origin of the bad advice the editor asked me about, and it's worth keeping in mind. Unfortunately, I didn't think of that until an hour after everyone had gone home. Now that's embarrassing.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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