3 Common Mistakes with the Pronoun IT: Helping students master dummy subjects and cleft sentences

We teach subject pronouns early in language instruction, and yet some confusion over their use can either linger or resurface. Have you found mistakes with subject pronouns to be somewhat common among upper level students?

Common Mistake 1: using a subject pronoun, like it, when there already is a subject. Example: My main concern it is how much longer we can work at this pace. Do you spot the error? What’s the subject? “My main concern.” Do we need “it”? No.

Solution: When this mistake happens in a student’s writing, I highlight it and try to get the student to identify the error and fix it. This week I’ve copied a short excerpt from an article and inserted some incorrect uses of pronouns. My student will have to spot them.

Common Mistake 2: constructing a cleft sentence incorrectly or using it inappropriately. IT-cleft sentences use “It” as the subject to focus on a specific idea. A clause with who or that follows. Example: It was Yuri Gagarin who first went into space, not Neil Armstrong. (= Yuri Gagarin was the first to go to space, not Neil Armstrong.)

Solution: Prompt students to construct meaningful sentences that naturally require clarification. I created a very short task about historical facts for my private students. I’ve adapted it for group instruction. Click to view my IT clefts_handout.

Common Mistake 3: forgetting that all sentences need a subject. The tricky thing is recognizing the need for a dummy subject, like it or there.

Solution: There’s a lot of information online and in books about dummy subjects. I wanted to create a worksheet that clearly presented some patterns, but also allowed for practice. Worksheets by nature don’t usually allow for meaningful context, so if you use my Dummy Subject IT_handout, be sure to read the suggestions for creating meaningful discussion based on statements with dummy subjects.

One thing I didn’t note on my handout is the danger of overusing dummy subjects in writing. Statements with the dummy subject it may sound fine in conversation, but in writing it may be better to find more concise wording. For example, it’s common for college students to study together could be rewritten as college students commonly study together.

Got your own ideas for practice with pronouns? Please feel free to share.

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