Can you start a sentence with 'it'? Of course. Do you want to? Maybe not.*

It never ceases to amaze me how much bad grammar information is out there. For example, here’s a question a professional editor asked me a while back: “Is it true you can’t start a sentence with “it”?

We were at a conference, standing in a busy hallway among other people waiting to ask questions. So I didn’t have the time to ask: Where’d you hear that? What’s the thinking behind it? Have you actually followed that advice in your editing work?

There are a lot of people who’ve heard you can’t start a sentence with “and,” and many who’ve heard the same about “but” and “so.” Those prohibitions are fictional (In fact, “Garner’s Modern American Usage” calls the idea that you can’t start a sentence with “and,” “but,” or “so” a superstition). But the alleged “it” rule was a new one on me.

My answer was short: “It’s fine,” I said, not realizing until afterward that my answer was an example.

“It” is a pronoun, like “he,” “him,” “we,” “us,” “they,” “them,” etc. Pronouns head up sentences all the time. She is in the yard. I am in the yard. They are in the yard. It is in the yard.

So the answer was easy. But a few hours later I was thinking about the question and had a realization: The supposed rule, though wrong, might actually be rooted in a useful idea.

Look at the sentence, “It is John who ate the last piece of cake.” This is perfectly grammatical. The main subject is “it,” the main verb is “is.” The “Oxford English Grammar” calls this “the cleft it,” in which “the sentence is split to put the focus on some part of it.”

Compare that sentence with the simpler “John ate the last piece of cake” and you can see how “it is John” adds a different emphasis. But that emphasis comes at a price: extra words and the loss of vividness you get every time you replace a tangible subject and action-oriented verb like “John ate” with more the abstract “it is.”

In news writing especially, “John ate the last piece of cake” is considered better form than “It is John who ate the last piece of cake.”

I bet that’s the origin of the myth that plagued our editor friend.

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8 Responses to “Can you start a sentence with 'it'? Of course. Do you want to? Maybe not.*”

  1. It never ceases to amaze me, that an article about "it" start with it. 🙂

  2. But, shouldn't pronouns have antecedents? And, when one starts a sentence with "it", doesn't that make the sentence grammatically incorrect? Sorry, I'm just a little confused.

  3. Gab: "It" is special. It doesn't always get an antecedent. Sometimes, according to Merriam-Webster's, "it" is "used as subject of an impersonal verb that expresses a condition or action without reference to an agent: 'it is raining.'"

    Other times, "it" can have antecedents that are a little murky. Like in "I'm looking at plane fares for Josie's wedding but I'm not sure I'll go. It depends on whether I get the job." What depends? Well, something that wasn't stated outright but is still clear to the reader: "the question of whether I'll go to the wedding."

    So "it" can have an express or not-so-express antecedent, or it can function in its unique job in which it requires no antecedent "It is raining."

  4. "Look at the sentence, 'It is John who ate the last piece of cake.' This is perfectly grammatical."

    Is it? Aren't the tenses mixed? Shouldn't it be, "It is John who is eating the last piece of cake"? Or "It was John who ate the last piece of cake"?

  5. Tom: Good question. Any of those options is fine. There's nothing wrong with having more than one tense in a sentence if that best conveys the meaning. "She is the one I loved." This might be best if you're pointing across the room at a woman whom you no longer love but who's standing there right now." In our sentence, both "It is John" and "It was John" are fine, though the difference is much smaller than in the "love" example. The choice depends only on whether you want the emphasis to be in the past or in the present.

  6. Why shouldsentences notstart with"there is" or"there are"?

  7. Khullak: There's nothing wrong with starting a sentence with "there is" or "there are." This is called the "existential there," in which "there" is sort of standing in for another noun. "Cars are in the street" vs. "There are cars in the street." Sometimes this is an inefficient way to make a point, which is how the rumor got started that this form is wrong. But in fact, this form is perfectly grammatical, if not always ideal.