The Printable KISS Grammar Workbooks


The Starry Night
Vincent van Gogh
Delayed Subjects and Sentences
Delayed Subjects

     The delayed or postponed subject is a modification of the basic sentence pattern in which the subject position is filled by an meaningless "it" and the meaningful subject is delayed until later in the sentence. Perhaps the most common constructions found in delayed subjects are the infinitive or subordinate clause:

Infinitives as Delayed Subjects:

Image courtesy of Shelagh Manton (in Australia).
Clearly this sentence means "To live and to learn is good."
     When an infinitive with a specified subject functions as a delayed subject, it is introduced by "for" and can thus be considered a prepositional phrase -- "It seemed quite dull and stupid for life to go on in the common way." (from Alice in Wonderland)

A Subordinate Clause as a Delayed Subject:

Image courtesy of Shelagh Manton (in Australia).
Here again the delayed subject can simply replace the placebo "it" -- "That it appears inevitable in retrospect is the mark of a good action."

     Although the construction usually appears with a noun clause or infinitive, other constructions or even nouns themselves may act as delayed subjects: 


It is difficult, waiting for your wife to have a baby. 
It was a pleasure working with you.
Noun Absolute: 
It was foolish, people of their age trying to climb a mountain. 
Noun: It was fortunate, the trip he took.

Prepositional Phrase:

     An interesting variation of the delayed subject appears with the preposition "for":

If it were not for their help, he would not have won.
In sentences such as this, the verb "to be" means "exist" -- if their help did not exist, he would not have won. Thus the meaningful subject is delayed and placed in a prepositional phrase with "for," and a placebo "it" takes its place at the beginning of the sentence.

     As with all the constructions, delayed subjects can be embedded in other subordinate constructions. The following sentence was written by a seventh grade student: 
The old man thought it funny that the trees, now strong and stable as he once was, still grew and became mightier, while he grew weaker and less surfeited, swaying in the wind.
The sentence is remarkable for the level of its embeddings, and especially for the reduction of "which were now strong and stable" to the simpler "now strong and stable." Everything after the "that" is easily analyzed in terms of clauses and the single gerundive "swaying," but what is the function of the "that" clause? It is a delayed subject to "it" in the infinitive construction "it to be funny," "funny" thus functioning as a predicate adjective after the ellipsed infinitive, and the infinitive, with, of course, everything that "goes to" it, functioning as the direct object of "thought." (I explain the ellipsed word as the infinitive "to be" by analogy with the "They made him captain" construction. You could justifiably say that the ellipsed word is "was.") 
     Although "it" is the pronoun most commonly found in the delayed subject construction, the following passage, written by a seventh grader, indicates that "that" is also possible: 
There wasn't any woods to go in when I got hot  no places to go sleigh riding and that is boring not to be able to do any of these things.

Delayed Sentences

     Delayed Sentences are closely related to delayed subjects. Consider:

Bob was playing baseball in his back yard.

It was Bob [who was playing baseball in his back yard,]
It is playing baseball [that Bob is doing in his back yard.]
It was baseball [that Bob was playing in his back yard.]
It is in his back yard [that Bob is playing baseball.]

As these examples suggest, in a delayed sentence construction, one part of a sentence is, in essence, pulled out and moved to the front, where it is preceded by "It" plus a form of the verb "to be." The rest of the sentence is thus "delayed" and becomes a subordinate clause that chunks to the "It" in the same way that delayed subjects do.