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I had written a paper with the sentence "There is also social proof in how the man with the pizza ends up with an attractive women". I had lost marks due to the fact it is poor English to start sentences with "There is" or "There are". I want to double check this is true because the prof actually is not fluent in English herself. If it true, how can such sentences be reworded? I know many things in English (and in life) aren't necessarily wrong but should be avoided. Is it that starting a sentence with "There is" is proper grammar but does not usually appear in academic writing?

I found notes with the explanation as to why she thinks this is bad:

(Almost) never begin a sentence with “It is...” or “There is/are...” These are examples of unnecessary verbiage. The exception is when the “it” actually refers to something, as in “This paper is an A+. It follows all the suggestions on this page.”

What is meant by when "it refers to something"?

EDIT: I personally don't see the need to quote the exact sentence as it is just an example, but I see some are getting quite worked up over the entire sentence in general.

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closed as off-topic by FumbleFingers, tchrist, David M, choster, RyeɃreḁd Mar 16 '14 at 4:15

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This question appears to be off-topic because it is about a non-existent rule that sentences shouldn't start with "There is/There are". @Celeritas: You didn't lose marks because of the first two words - you lost marks because the whole sentence is bad English. – FumbleFingers Mar 16 '14 at 0:06
Your teacher is wrong. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. - Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813) – F.E. Mar 16 '14 at 0:36
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 (1859) – F.E. Mar 16 '14 at 0:37
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. - C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952) – F.E. Mar 16 '14 at 0:38
@Tonik: There are times when rewording a sentence to avoid the use of "there is" or "there are" can reduce clarity. Or should I have said: "Clarity is often reduced when sentences are reworded to avoid the use of 'there is' or 'there are'"? Or "Rewording sentences to avoid the use of 'there is' and 'there are' often results in the concomitant reduction of clarity"? – Peter Shor Mar 16 '14 at 12:24

First of all, I think your question is very interesting.

I wouldn't say sentences should not start with "there is" or "there are", because it's not a rule per se.

That said, good academic writing is about making your point as clearly and efficiently as you can. Furthermore, in academic english good sentences are short/simple sentences (contrary to other languages such as french, where complex sentences are used a lot in academic writing and seem to reflect the author's skills and depth). This is a tacit rule of the language that's a real challenge for english teachers (in France at least) because most of the time it's hard to diagnose. Personally it took me a long time to understand this, as my teachers were never able to explain what was wrong. They just did the same as yours : criticize the use of an otherwise correct phrasing that made my sentence more complex than needed.

"There is" is a neutral phrasing that (in some cases) steals importance from the real subject of the sentence. In your example, using it makes your sentence less clear and understandable. Plus it seems to show that you don't know how to use "social proof" in a sentence, specifically because you had to twist your sentence and make it more complicated in order to talk about "social proof".

Your sentence should probably have started with its natural subject, which is the way the man acted.


What is meant by when "it refers to something"?

"It" can refer to a previously mentionned object, but it's not always the case. In the same spirit, "there" can refer to a previously mentionned place, but it's not always the case either.

Here are some examples :

The chair is big, it takes too much space.

Here, "it" is used so that "the chair" doesn't have to be said again. But the subject of the second proposition is still the chair. What takes too much space? -> the chair. The sentence could get rid of the word "it", and become :

The chair is big, the chair takes too much space.

In the following, "it" refers to a proposition:

The chair is big, it is impossible to put anything else in the room.

Here, "it" refers to the action described later. What's impossible? -> not the chair! The sentence could get rid of the word "it", and become :

The chair is big, putting anything else in the room is impossible.

Now "it" becomes indispensable when it doesn't refer to any clear object/proposition:

It's time to go!

It doesn't refer to anything in particular. What is time? -> ???

"There" works kind of the same way. When you say :

I entered the room and there was the teacher.

Where was the teacher? -> In the room I entered.

But "there +BE" can be used without a context :

There are several ways to use this word.

Where are several ways? -> ??? anywhere, everywhere, that's not the point.

What your quote is saying is that "it" and "there" should only be used when they refer to something.

I can't completely agree on this, here's why :

In my last example, you could say "This word can be used in several ways" in order to get rid of "there are". But the sentence becomes passive, which is less simple/natural than the original one.

Clarity is not only brought via shortness of sentences, elimination of neutral words etc. Active tense is much more simple and straightforward than passive tense, and sometimes active tense should prevail over the choice of non-neutral words like "there".

The best way to know whether or not your sentence is as clear as it can be is to try different phrasings and see how they feel. Trying different ways of expressing yourself will make you learn faster, and give you a real chance to pass your message.

For instance, I have corrected this answer several times as I was writing it, finding more efficient phrasings after one or two trials. My goal is for you to understand what I am saying, and sometimes the first words I write are not the perfect ones. Success doesn't come from luck, it comes from repeated failures. Leaving your first choice of phrasing on the page is ignoring the very true fact that you have great potential but the first trial can almost always be perfected.

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Good explanation. – medica Mar 16 '14 at 1:00
And to clarify what the teacher seemingly meant about the exception (as she does not use "it is" or "there is/are"): after starting with "The way the man ...", the next sentence, referring back to this, could begin "There are", eg, "The way the man handed the women the pizza shows his attitude toward them. There are many good ways to hand pizza to a woman...." – nxx Mar 16 '14 at 1:29
@Susan thanks :) nxx : Yes, that seems to be a good way of correction the clumsiness of the original sentence. I find that most of the time in english if the sentence is not working it should be decomposed into two sentences ;) – Tonik Mar 16 '14 at 1:45
"in academic english good sentences are short/simple sentences" what makes you say this? I can think of quite a few pieces of academic writing that have more complex sentences compared to fiction. – Celeritas Mar 16 '14 at 1:56
I'm afraid I'm still unclear. Doesn't the tendency to use complex sentences or simple sentences have more to do with culture and isn't inherent in a language itself? So you're saying in English if a piece of writing is complex, the author did a poor job writing it? What if the subject being discussed is complex? Why would other languages try to write in a complex fashion, doesn't that defeat the purpose of trying to be understood? – Celeritas Mar 16 '14 at 2:38

My only response is: indeed, your professor is not fluent in English, to have stated such baloney about English grammar!

Your sentence is grammatical but sloppy English.

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read the answer below. There is an empty word, which weakens a statement. Grammar alone does not guarantee good style, a good sentence, or a strong statement. – medica Mar 16 '14 at 0:59
Empty words do not "weaken" a statement, any more than auxiliary verbs or articles do. That's just a crochet. How would you ask "Is it raining?" without using the empty there? – John Lawler Mar 16 '14 at 2:36
There-Insertion, the rule that inserts the dummy subject there, is obligatory for some verbs (seem, appear), and very common with long subject clauses whenever they are the subject of the verbs in the list. – John Lawler Mar 16 '14 at 2:43
@Susan: Oh damn. I meant "the empty it," of course. Skitt's Rule strikes again 8| – John Lawler Mar 16 '14 at 2:44
@JohnLawler - Of course, some sentences are best started (or only possible) using there/it. But There is also social proof in how the man with the pizza ends up with an attractive women certainly isn't one of them. – medica Mar 16 '14 at 5:04

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