Dead Constructions

Hammer Grammar
Lesson 4: Dead Constructions
This week’s grammar review is not complicated. You won’t learn 17 rules. Just one:
Don’t use dead constructions.
Yet there are few grammar problems more insidious. It is so common that dead
constructions slide off our tongues or through the keyboards of our computers without a
thought. You probably didn’t notice that this paragraph contains two of them. After this
review, you should begin noticing them everywhere, especially in your own writing.
Recognizing dead constructions
Finding dead constructions is a no-brainer if you are on the alert. Look for sentences that
begin with or contain the words “it is” or “there is.” Dead, dead, dead.
Dead constructions commit you to a weak verb: “is.” Dead constructions can hide the
subjects in the back of sentences. In other words, the dead construction handicaps your
writing, adding unnecessary words and weakening two of the most important parts of
your sentence: the beginning and the verb.
Getting rid of a dead construction puts a more powerful subject at the beginning and
gives you the opportunity for an active verb. That verb may even be lurking in your
sentence disguised as a noun. Look at the following sentence, for example.
It is the intent of managers to hold a large clearance sale at Toys R Us.
Kill “It is,” convert “intent” to a verb, and restructure the sentence. Shazam!
Toys R Us managers intend to hold a large clearance sale.
OK, you won’t win a Pulitzer, but at least you have a clearer, simpler sentence with an
active verb and a strong subject.
One exception: You may want to use “it is/there is” for emphasis
It was the mayor who broke ranks with the Democratic Party.
But use that kind of construction sparingly! Make sure you can justify resorting to a
sentence form that is, by definition, dead, dead, may it rest in peace.
Helpful hint
Do a word search for “there” and “it” before you hand in a story. Get rid of every
one of them you can, substituting strong nouns and verbs whenever possible.
Hammer Grammar
Exercise 4: Dead Constructions
Your Name: ________________________________________
Rewrite the sentences below to get rid of the dead constructions. Also, fix any
errors that we’ve covered in previous Hammer Grammar lessons.
1. There are a few observers who believe Bush will be able to get major
legislation passed as a lame-duck president.
2. There have been periodic claims, fed by students, that Kilroy’s would be
closed by the police.
3. There was an apparent drug deal gone bad lying behind the violent conflict on
South Woodlawn.
4. There is no limit to the potential of this year’s basketball team.
5. It is not necessary to have media experience to work at WIUX.
6. There are local churches that are eager to attract new students to their
7. It is more difficult to find a job as a professor now than at any time in the
8. There are some dead constructions that can be used to good affect.
From class discussions and readings:
9-11. What are the three types of “layers?” Describe them.
12. Which of these is NOT a documentary source?
a. An article in USA Today that cites a study on bone loss
b. An article in The New England Journal of Medicine about a study on
bone loss.
c. A study on bone loss downloaded from the Mayo Clinic Web site
d. A study on bone loss a doctor gave you during an interview with her
about this disease.
13. What is a federal shield law?
14-15. Name two good ways to find sources that are not computer-based.