Another sentence structure to hate

Here’s an example of a sentence structure I just learned to hate: “There are lye-based products that clear debris out of pipes.”

You may not see anything odious about that perfectly common sentence structure. But when you compare it to a version that’s been revised by a professional editor, the problem becomes clear. Here’s the edited version: “Lye-based products clear debris out of pipes.”

Looking at the two versions, you immediately see that “there are” is unnecessary. Just extra words. Worse, these words force you to add one more word: “that.” Instead of saying the products clear out debris, you must say these are products “that” clear out debris. So the structure creates a wordier-than-necessary sentence.

True, shorter sentences aren’t always better. But they usually are. They make the best use of readers’ time and attention, wasting none of it on unnecessary words.

But needless words aren’t the only problem with the longer sentence. A closer look at the syntax reveals deeper problems.

In our revised version, the main clause has a tangible subject: lye-based products. Tangible subjects have a sensory effect on readers, evoking images, sounds or smells. Lye evokes burning and stinging and danger and a certain power. Even pairing it up with a bland, vague noun like “products” doesn’t diminish its effect on readers.

In the original sentence, the subject was the pronoun “there.” Technically, this is called the “existential there,” which is just a structure we use to say something exists. As a subject, “there” is a real yawner — as devoid of specificity as a word can be.

Existential “there” always uses a form of the verb “be,” in this case “are.” Forms of “be” are among the least-dynamic verbs you’ll find. Being is always less action-packed than doing. I explain how to handle this in my recent column.

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