No Place for Placeholders

Sat Jun 18 2016

That's not much of an image to use for decorating this article, is it? The article feels almost unfinished; like I never got around to thinking about what I really wanted to use to symbolize the article. Even the caption is just a stand-in for actual content.

Yes, it's a crappy image, but it makes the point: if this article were about literally anything else, the image would not be of any benefit to readers. It would not provide the element of context, humor, whimsy, or gravity that is the purpose of a blog illustration.

This example is visual, but placeholder phrases litter most people's writing, too. Let's examine what they are, why they are problematic, why they happen, and how to fix them.

What is a Placeholder Phrase

Placeholder phrases are idiomatic expressions that use a pronoun as the subject of the sentence, plus a copula) verb. Used properly, pronouns make fine subjects. The problem in placeholder phrases is that the pronouns don't actually refer back to anything like they're supposed to.

Consider this an example passage:

Sonja hefted her backpack onto her shoulders and left her makeshift camp. It was a long way to Haven, and if she did not deliver the package on time, it would go hard for her.

I need that bounty, she thought.

It was morning, but the sun remained hidden below the forest's thick trees. Sonja shrugged off a chill. Marching would warm her soon enough. No profit in staying at camp to stoke up a fire anyhow. Not when there were things in the forest she'd sooner avoid.

Not things, she reminded herself. Werelings. She pondered why she still feared facing them now that she was one of them. Was it because she did not know their ways? Did she fear they would attack her anyway? Or was it that she might discover she enjoyed being with them?

Sonja redoubled her pace.

Here are the placeholders:

In the first one, ask yourself, what does "it" refer to? Being a pronoun, "it" takes the place of a noun. That noun is called the pronoun's "referent." What's the referent in this case? What was a long way to Haven?

Maybe "it" refers to her journey? Well, no, not exactly. "The journey was a long way to Haven" doesn't quite work. What about the path she's on? "The path was a long way to Haven" doesn't work either.

So what the heck does "it" refer to? We can't really say, because "it" has no referent. "It" becomes a linguistic arrow pointing to nothing, except perhaps to some vaguely definable notion of "the current situation".

This is why placeholder phrases are problematic. They are subjects of their sentences, yet they don't actually mean anything. They're empty, leaving readers grasping at vagueness to complete the meaning of the sentence.

Why Placeholders Happen

Placeholder phrases happen because, as we write, our brains rarely supply the components of our sentences in the order we actually need them. Our brains are concerned, in that example, with the fact that Sonja is facing a long journey in order to reach Haven. As we write, we're being supplied with this concept of "long journey", but no proper subject or verb to go with it.

Being lazy as we are (and entirely habituated to this kind of sentence structure), we just fill in the subject and verb with placeholders. Slap an "it was" on the front and presto, our sentence is now grammatically complete if semantically shaky.

Placeholder phrases are ultimately the result of writers not taking the time to think about what they actually mean to say. They are a convenient excuse to avoid specifying your real subject.

Consequently, the pronouns in placeholder phrases are nearly always "it" or "there". How could they be anything else? No other pronouns in English are quite so generic in their meaning, and thus appropriate for holding the place of something not specified.

How to Fix Placeholders

First up, let me say that I have no problem with people using placeholder phrases in a first draft. That's fine. Get the story down first. You can clean up the placeholders later.

When you come to your second draft, though, try to hold yourself to a higher standard. Fixing placeholder phrases is a three step process: Find them, diagnose them, and fix them.

1. Finding Your Placeholders

You, modern writer with your fancy word processor, are lucky compared to writers of the past. The fact that the pronoun is always "it" or "there," and the verb is always some form of "to be", is a huge boon in the otherwise tedious task of hunting down your placeholder phrases. These parts can be combined in only so many ways, and the number isn't all that large.

"It was" and "there were", in my experience, are definitely the two most common and are trivial to search for in your word processor.

Spend a couple of hours getting cozy with your word processor's search function.

2. Diagnosing Your Placeholders

Not every "it was" or "there were" turns out to be a placeholder. The key is whether the pronoun has a referent. For example:

The sunset was gorgeous. It was a spread of reds and golds like nothing she had ever seen

That one's fine. You have no trouble saying what that "it" refers to (the sunset), unlike the "it" in "it was a long way to Haven".

If your pronoun has a referent, move on to the next one. If the pronoun doesn't, then move on to step three.

3. Fixing Your Placeholders

Placeholders are the result of not being clear about the actual subject of your sentence. Thus, at least conceptually, the solution is obvious: replace the placeholder with a real subject.

In practice, that's not always so straightforward. If you can't say what the "it" in "it was a long way to Haven" refers to, how can you replace it with something better?

Usually, you're better off reworking the structure of the entire sentence. What is it about "a long way to Haven" that we really want to talk about? Does Sonja dread the length of the journey? Does the distance constitute a particular challenge to her ability to make the trip? What do we actually want to say, here?

In that particular example, mentioning the length of the journey is a prelude to the fact that she's working under a deadline, which means she's really going to have to hoof it to get there on time. The problem isn't so much that the journey is, in the abstract, long. The problem is that Haven is still a long ways from where she is at the moment. Thus, we can improve the sentence by refocusing it on Haven rather than the distance involved:

Haven still stood a long ways off.

Now we have a proper subject, "Haven,"" and a better verb, "stood". Applying similar thinking to the whole passage, we get this:

Sonja hefted her backpack onto her shoulders and left her makeshift camp. Haven still stood a long ways off, and she would pay a price if she did not deliver the package on time.

I need that bounty, she thought.

The sun had risen, but remained hidden below the forest's thick trees. Sonja shrugged off a chill. Marching would warm her soon enough. No profit in staying at camp to stoke up a fire anyhow. Not when forest held things she'd sooner avoid.

Not things, she reminded herself. Werelings. She pondered why she still feared facing them now that she was one of them. Perhaps because she did not know their ways, and thus worried they would attack her anyway. Or did she fear she might enjoy being with them?

Sonja redoubled her pace.

Sometimes Placeholders are Ok

The title of this article is, I'll admit, something of a lie. I don't recommend banishing all placeholders from all writing, and indeed, there are places where placeholders work just fine.