Simple sentences

Simple sentences

Advanced: What was happening?

We're going to look at one more type of simple sentence which needs a little more understanding of conventional grammar than what we've looked at so far.

There was a low, mocking laugh behind him.

The Forests of SilenceEmily RoddaSource

In this snippet, what exactly is the word 'there'? Is it a place? A thing?

It's not really either of those things. This is where our conventional grammar comes in.

Most sentences in English follow a basic pattern called subject-verb-(object) ('object' is in brackets because not all sentences need an object).

  • The 'subject' is whatever is doing the action.
  • The 'verb' is the action.
  • The '(object)' is what the action is being done to.

So in a sentence like:

Ao-fei ate the sandwich.

  • The central verb is 'ate'.
  • The object eaten is 'the sandwich'.
  • The subject doing the eating is 'Ao-fei'.

Nice and straightforward.

Now let's look at our original snippet again.

There was a low, mocking laugh behind him.

The Forests of SilenceEmily RoddaSource
  • The action is 'being'.
  • The object that is being is 'a low mocking laugh'.
  • The subject that is doing the being is... wait—that doesn't make sense.

What or who is being a low, mocking laugh? There's no good answer—the laugh just 'is'.

But the English language makes us put something as a placeholder anyway. The fancy term is an 'empty subject' (because grammatically it's a subject but it doesn't actually mean anything).

Let's look at a few more examples.

It was just after dark.

The Glass CastleJeanette WallsSource

It always rains.

Paper TownsJohn GreenSource
Empty subjects and the risk of bland writing
Your turn
Going deeper: Not every 'it' is empty

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