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Can we use "It varies a lot" at the very beginning of a sentence or a paragraph in written English? I just had a harsh debate with the part-time lecturer about whether we could use "It varies a lot" in the first clause of the first sentence of a paragraph.

Example: "It varies a lot, but I wake up around 8:30. Then I stretch my calves on the windowsill every morning. ~"

PTL (part-time lecturer) says that 'it' cannot be allowed at the beginning of a sentence because "it is a wrong start as there is no word accounting for 'it' in the front."

I think "it" in the sentence is functioning as a dummy subject, and since "I" is the subject of the second clause, there is no need to correct the "dummy subject sentence."

Who is more likely to be correct, me or PTL? And how should I find the reference literature about that specific topic?

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    ell.stackexchange.com/questions/5667/… - yes, it's a dummy pronoun. I'm not sure where your lecturer's "rule" is coming from, since even disregarding dummy pronouns, you can start a sentence with it if the context makes it clear what it refers to. ("I ordered a cheeseburger yesterday. It was really good.") Apr 16 at 8:06
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    @MaciejStachowski but your example starts off with "I ordered a cheeseburger" There is no "it" , and in "It was really good" the pronoun clearly refers to the burger, which I suppose was the point you were making but it's not the same thing. "The time I wake up varies a lot." is, academically speaking, preferable but I wouldn't highlight the OP's choice as being "wrong"
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 16 at 11:30
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    @Mari-LouA yes, this was in response to the lecturer's blanket assertion that "it" cannot be allowed at the beginning of a sentence - to which there are obvious counterexamples that don't even need a dummy subject. But as Michael shows in the answer below, there's nothing wrong with "it" being even at the beginning of an entire book. Apr 16 at 11:58
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    It sounds overly conversational here without more context: "It varies a lot, but I wake up around 8:30. Then I stretch my calves on the windowsill every morning. Start with what it is you do rather than It varies a lot. I understand your lecturer's objection which is not grammatical; it's stylistic. You are not texting a friend, are you? "It varies a lot could refer to" The time I wake up, and therefore it is not a dummy pronoun.
    – Lambie
    Apr 16 at 14:21
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    @MichaelHarvey I quite like your answer, would you consider "undeleting" it? I didn't upvote (not yet) it because I was hoping for a longer explanation instead of a screenshot of P&P first page. However, the first word of the first paragraph, nay, the first word on the page is an "it" which debunks the PTL theory.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 16 at 20:00

6 Answers 6

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Please show this to the lecturer. You may wish to consider complaining to the college or school authorities.

enter image description here

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    A pedantic person would have no problem saying, "That book is wrong". No matter how famous the book or the author. :-)
    – Jay
    Apr 16 at 11:33
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    Austen's writing style is interesting; it was a time when the English language was changing a lot, and she came from the West of England far from the metropolitan centres. So there are a lot of idiosyncrasies and new coinages in her writing, many of which were popularized by her writing. But I think "it" is definitely fine. And Dickens also started a novel "It was the worst of times, it was the best of times" (after her).
    – Stuart F
    Apr 16 at 13:02
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    1984 starts with "It" as well.
    – Tashus
    Apr 16 at 17:35
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    And even more famously: The Tale of Two Cities, which starts with a dummy it followed by nine more in the first paragraph of Dickens' book. So Dickens beats Austen in the dummy pronoun department.
    – Lambie
    Apr 17 at 11:26
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    Unfortunately, this only works as a counter-claim to the specific (and obviously untenable) claim that no sentence can ever begin with the word it under any circumstances. A literal reading of the question does yield such a claim, but I doubt it accurately represents what the lecturer actually said. More likely, they objected to the particular use of it mentioned in the question, which is fundamentally different from any of the literary examples mentioned, since the it in the example is not a dummy pronoun and does indeed lack an antecedent. Apr 17 at 14:07
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It is perfectly fine to begin a sentence with "it". It is not at all difficult for native speakers to understand such sentences, which ultimately is the goal of most communication anyway. It turns out that many of these "grammatical rules" are not rules at all, but only describe some of the simpler uses of English. It sounds like your lecturer may not have had thorough exposure to the many flexible uses of this word, and the English language as a whole. It is a shame that you're having difficulty convincing your lecturer of this.

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    It's not something a native English speaker would say unless you had been talking about the time you wake up before this sentence.
    – Steve Ives
    Apr 17 at 14:18
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    I don't think the instructor was referring to all uses of "it" at the start of a sentence, but only this particular type of use.
    – Barmar
    Apr 17 at 15:24
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    I have to disagree with @SteveIves. A native speaker could indeed begin a sentence in that manner, perhaps with a "Ya know". "Ya know, it varies a lot, but I usually ...". The meaning of "it varies a lot" won't be immediately clear, but as soon as the second clause is uttered, the import of "it varies a lot" would be understood by the listener. Speakers in casual conversation do not alway "package" their utterances optimally. The sentence would be fully understandable nonetheless. 50% of oral communication is listening.
    – TimR
    Apr 17 at 17:30
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Without more context (preceding sentences) and out of the blue, this sentence:
"It varies a lot, but I wake up around 8:30. Then I stretch my calves on the windowsill every morning." spoken as a first sentence or written as such is stylistically poor. It has nothing to do with grammar per se. It has to do with style. In that sentence, "it" is not a dummy pronoun.

  • Why is it not a dummy pronoun?

Because: the it pronoun replaces this implied phrase: the time I wake up.

" It [he time I wake up] varies a lot, but I wake up around 8:30. Then I stretch my calves on the windowsill every morning." It is fine in normal conversation:

Q: What time do you wake up, Amalia? A: It varies a lot, but I wake up around 8:30. Then I stretch my calves on the windowsill every morning."

So, your PTL is right if there is no previous context like this:

Waking up can be annoying or fun. It varies a lot in my case but I wake up etc.

OR, with a dummy pronoun:

It is true that waking up can be fun or not. Etc.

Dummy pronoun

A dummy pronoun is used when a particular verb argument (or preposition) is nonexistent (it could also be unknown, irrelevant, already understood, or otherwise "not to be spoken of directly") but when a reference to the argument (a pronoun) is nevertheless syntactically required. For example, in the phrase "It is obvious that the violence will continue", it is a dummy pronoun, not referring to any agent. Unlike a regular pronoun of English, it cannot be replaced by any noun phrase.[citation needed]

The term dummy pronoun refers to the function of a word in a particular sentence, not a property of individual words. For example, it in the example from the previous paragraph is a dummy pronoun, but it in the sentence "I bought a sandwich and ate it" is a referential pronoun (referring to the sandwich).

Here is a very famous quote with 10 dummy its, the first paragraph of the Dickens' novel:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” ― Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

enter image description here

That is the first sentence in the book.

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    Is "stylistically poor" not entirely subjective?
    – Omegastick
    Apr 16 at 17:22
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    @Omegastick Well, it isn't objective. We answer as subjects, not objects. But my argument holds water.
    – Lambie
    Apr 16 at 17:41
  • If the lecturer's objection is that we don't know what "it" refers to, this might not be the best counterexample, as Dickens spends the next five lines explaining exactly what "it" is.
    – Ray
    Apr 17 at 15:31
  • @ray But that doesn't mean the "its" aren't dummy.
    – Lambie
    Apr 17 at 19:36
  • Good answer. There's no right or wrong here, but there is good and bad (and yes, that's subjective). Remember that it's a mark of good novelists that they constantly give you an incentive to read on: you want to find out what "it" is that they speak of. But it takes more than an anticipatory pronoun to achieve that. Apr 17 at 19:51
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As others have said, this particular "it" (which is not very similar to the "It was" starting certain famous novels) sounds a bit strange unless there was at least some preceding context. But there is absolutely no reason why the preceding context can't be in a different paragraph. For example, it is perfectly reasonable for the answer to a question to start with "It varies a lot, but...", and here you absolutely should start a new paragraph because the speaker has changed.

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Other people have discussed the usage of dummy pronouns. I’ll bring up another, subtle point..

“It varies” is more formal than “a lot,” so I would recommend rewriting the sentence for a more consistent tone. “It varies considerably,” or “It varies from day to day,” would work better in formal writing.

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Your sentence is perfectly idiomatic and something like it would be spoken tens of thousands of times a day throughout the English-speaking world.

Just Google "it varies a lot but" for examples.

A long-winded paraphrase would be something like:

{ What I'm about to say varies considerably } -- I wake up (usually) around 8:30...

It is conversational. It is a kind of concession:

Although it varies from day to day, I usually wake up around 8:30AM.

"It" refers to the declaration in the main clause.

What is weird about your utterance is the second sentence, which goes on to say that every morning the speaker does a stretching exercise. Then is a bit odd as a transition between a statement about The Varying and one about The Unvarying. One might expect but instead.

P.S. In a written composition, if you wish to say something like that, the text should be in a casual, conversational register (and, of course, you'd use that register only when it is deemed suitable).

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    It’s interesting that placing the it in a subordinate clause like this makes it perfectly natural even as an opener. But as stated in the question, it is clumsy and unnatural. “It varies, but I usually wake up at…” works fine as an answer, but not very well as an opening line; “although it varies, I usually wake up at…” works fine as either. When the pronoun is in a subordinate clause, we are more prepared to expect its antecedent to follow it instead of preceding it. Apr 17 at 14:11
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    This would be a very odd way to begin a sentence unless the speaker had been asked what time they wake up, or waking up time was clearly the subject of an existing conversation.
    – Steve Ives
    Apr 17 at 14:21
  • @JanusBahsJacquet I would include this kind of structure under the "Your-mileage-may-vary" type. Your mileage may vary, but I find Itch-b-Gone works far better than Scratch-Away. The opening clause is a "speech-act" adjunct and "it" refers to what is being declared in the subsequent clause.
    – TimR
    Apr 17 at 16:07
  • @SteveIves OP's example about how they wake up is a poor example when discussing "paragraphs" so I took it as merely a structural example and discarded the content.
    – TimR
    Apr 17 at 16:10
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    @Tim Absolutely – within the context of a spoken conversation, it works fine, because there you have exactly that type of stage-setting that makes it work. But the way the question is phrased, talking about starting paragraphs in written English, makes me think that context is explicitly not what’s being asked about. It kind of feels like J.Moon is asking, “Can I do this in writing with no previous context?”, and your answer is, “Yes, but only in speech with previous context”. Apr 17 at 17:49

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