Any grammar Nazi worth his or her salt knows the atrocity of the missing antecedent. The worst of all errors is a sentence that begins with “it” (à la, “It was a dark and stormy night”). What I have realized, though, is that few rules like these are so unarguable that someone hasn’t broken them with success. After all, the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice have an unforgettable ring: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” and “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
In fact, this scenario where the great authors break the rules reminds me of the final rule I learned in my photography class a couple years ago. My teacher taught us photography composition rules, such as the rule of thirds and leading lines, but then the list that he referenced ended with the tip that rules are meant to broken. And that is where true talent often shines through. Where some people realize they are Austens, and others discover they aren’t.
Examples of “It” in Action
- “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” — George Orwell, 1984
- “It was a pleasure to burn.” — Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
- “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
- “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, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” — Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Why “It” Works
Clarity and precision are paramount when you write to explain, persuade, or inform. However, in literature and poetry, authors can break these rules and intentionally confound readers with unclear subjects. Sometimes a sense of mystery or confusion can be a tool instead of a hindrance. I think this power to create mystery and suspense is part of why a sentence that begins with it can be powerful in artistic writing situations when, in other contexts, the construction would be weak.
In the opening lines quoted above, each author makes a startling claim. If Bradbury had merely said “it was a pleasure to burn wood in the fireplace,” his readers would have responded “duh!” and slipped into boredom within seconds. The same would have been true if Orwell had stopped at “April.” His second clause packs the punch in the opening line from 1984 with its final word. Because clocks don’t strike thirteen. And if clocks are doing this, then something is wrong, and the audience already feels the wrongness with this simple, jarring statement.
Don’t state the obvious if you are going to start a sentence—and especially a book—with it. Make it count. Lure the audience in with a benign “it was…” and then catch them off guard. This sentence construction is likely to fall apart without a startling claim. In fact, I think this explains why “it was a dark and stormy night” is ridiculed, while the opening lines I referenced above are revered. Dark and stormy nights are commonplace. Describing a night in this way does little to set this particular evening apart from any other and fails to capitalize on the power and mystery of it.
Based on the claims above, perhaps a simple formula is possible: Successful sentence beginning with it = “It” + verb + startling claim (humorous, thought-provoking, intriguing, or surprising).
Now, the next time you’re about to pounce on a sentence with a missing antecedent, red pen in hand, remember that it serves a valuable role in writing and even has the power to form some of the most memorable quotes in the history of literature. Further, if you’re feeling creative, try using it to begin a story and see if the formula works for you (please share your sentence in the comments). Perhaps you will be the next Austen, Dickens, Bradbury, or Orwell.
Quotes from http://americanbookreview.org/100BestLines.asp
Image from Fahrenheit 451 (2018) from https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0360556/mediaindex?ref_=tt_pv_mi_sm