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Teaching impersonal subjects

16 December 2020

Thank you for visiting this page. The lesson plan (below) is adapted from my Udemy online course, (ten free places until 15 January 2021Teaching Grammar for Business Essays. To see details of the course, please click on the course title. 

You could adapt the examples for other academic subject areas.

If you prefer to watch a video version of this lesson plan, please click on the course title above, scroll down to ‘Course content’, expand the section ‘Being objective in a business essay: key grammar items’, and then choose ‘Preview’ on the right.

Feel free to use this plan in any way that suits your classroom or online requirements. You are welcome to copy and paste this web page into a separate document for editing or printing purposes. To access a Word version, please look under ‘Sample lesson plans’ on this page.

Links to three more lesson plans:

Compound adjectives and prepositional phrases in essays

Cautious or ‘hedging’ language in essays

Nouns in pairs (in academic writing)

 

To read my short article 'What is academic grammar?' please click here.

 

LESSON PLAN                               

Impersonal subjects

 

INTRODUCTION

In academic English, writers sometimes begin their sentences with the impersonal subjects ‘it’ and ‘there’. These are also called ‘dummy’, ‘empty’ or ‘preparatory’ subjects.

In this lesson plan, I show you how you can raise students’ awareness of the concept of impersonal subjects, and differentiate them not only from each other, but also from the use of ‘it’ as a pronoun, and ‘there’ as an adverb. (Please note that in this introductory plan I am working mostly at a sentence level, though there some opportunities for students to produce longer texts.)

Then I look at ways of teaching two main structures that follow ‘it’, and afterwards at using ‘there’ to introduce new information in the form of a noun phrase.

Finally, I consider how impersonal nouns such as ‘research’ or ‘report’ can be used as the subject of a sentence.

 

PROCEDURE

One way to start is to contrast their use as impersonal subjects with their other uses, so that students can see the difference.

Put the following four sentences up, get your class into groups, and ask them: what do it and there actually refer to in these sentences?

Item 1 (contrastive exercise)

1. Trying to define an organisation’s destination, and what it will mean when it gets there, is a productive activity for any management team.

2. It is important that the general public understands how corporate governance works.

3. There is a well-established method for calculating an ‘economic order quantity’ (EOQ) so as to minimize holding costs.

4. Online advertising is a relatively new phenomenon; in many ways, it is a medium that is still evolving.

 

Here are the answers:

Item 2 (contrastive exercise, answers)

1. … and what it means when it gets there, is a productive activity …

The adverb ‘there’ refers to ‘destination’

2. Gregson (2011) explains why it is important that …

‘It’ doesn’t actually refer to anything in particular

3. There is a well-established method for …

Again, ‘There’ doesn’t refer to anything in particular

4. Online advertising is a relatively new phenomenon; in many ways, it is …

The pronoun ‘it’ refers to ‘online advertising’

 

From these examples, it’s possible to see why confusion can arise: although the impersonal subject ‘there’ is followed by a noun phrase, and the impersonal subject ‘it’ is followed by an adjective or past participle and a clause, as I’ll explore later, ‘it’ as a pronoun may also be followed by a noun phrase, as it is in the last sentence.

Anyway, explain to your students after they have done this exercise, that you will be looking at 'it' and 'there' as they are used in the middle two sentences, as ‘impersonal’ subjects: useful elements of an objective tone.

Let’s start with ‘it’.

Explain that the use of ‘it’ as an impersonal subject is very common in academic English, and that there are 3 main types of structure:

Item 3 (3 types of ‘it’ structure)

1.         It + passive verb + that … (e.g. It is estimated that …)

2.         It + be + adjective + to + infinitive … (e.g. It is important to decide …)

3.         It + be + adjective + that …. (e.g. It is clear that …)

The first use has already been covered in my lesson plan on cautious language (see Items 8 -10 on this link if you want to cover this material), so let’s focus now on the second type, which is actually the most common of the three.

Show your students this gapped example sentence, and ask them for ideas to complete it. The writer’s use of the word ‘even’ will rule out some of the options:

Item 4 (gapped sentence after ‘It’ type 2)

It is ____________ to make accurate global economic predictions, even for the next few months ahead.

Here are some good options:

Item 5 (gapped sentence after ‘It’ type 2: answers)

not easy/difficult/not possible/impossible

Now explain that there is a group of adjectives that are used again and again in this structure. Either show them the list, or try to elicit it from the class to see how aware they are of its use:

Item 6 (common adjectives after ‘It’ type 2)

(not) easy, difficult

(not) possible, impossible

important, essential, necessary

interesting, (not) unusual

 

Explain that the verb ‘be’ in this structure may be hedged or made ‘cautious’:

Item 7 (hedging ‘be’ after ‘it’)

It may not be possible to design a comprehensive plan for organizational change.

…and that the structure is frequently ‘extended’ to include an indirect object: a good way to make this second point is to show students this gapped sentence and ask them to complete it:

Item 8 (extending the ‘It’ type 2)

It may not be possible _______ a company to design a comprehensive plan for organizational change.

The answer is ‘for’, and you could ask the class in pairs to remodel these two sentences along the same lines.

Item 9 (remodelling two sentences)

Busy senior managers must define exactly how much authority they plan to delegate.

(use essential)

The holder of a new job should define its priorities as soon as possible.

(use important)

Here are the answers:

Item 10 (remodelling two sentences: answers)

It is essential for busy senior managers to define exactly how much authority they plan to delegate.

It is important for the holder of a new job to define its priorities as soon as possible.

 

At this point in the lesson, you might like to try the following activity to allow your students to practise this structure more freely.

Show the class the following table, and ask them groups to use it to create meaningful sentences about the areas of business they are studying, choosing one adjective and then one noun.

Item 11 (creating new ‘It’ type 2 sentences)

 

        (not) easy, difficult                                        companies/organizations, CEOs,

It     (not) possible, impossible             for        (new) managers, senior managers,          to…

        important, essential, necessary                  staff, new/junior members of staff,

        interesting, (not) unusual                           customers, consumers, the public,

                                                                                  an HR department, an interview panel                                                                                 

 

Encourage them to use hedging language, as I discussed before, where appropriate, such as:

Item 12 (creating new ‘It’ type 2 sentences: hedging language)

It may/might be… (difficult etc.)

It is normally/often/sometimes… (difficult etc.)                                                                        

Afterwards, students can read out some of their group’s sentences, and you may decide to write a few up as either as good examples of the structure, or to provoke discussion.

 

OK. Now let’s take a look at the third type of ‘It’ structure, when you use an adjective with ‘that’. Show your students this example sentence…

Item 13 (‘It’ type 3 example)

It is clear that very demanding clients take up more than their fair share of a senior manager’s time.

… and explain or elicit the group of adjectives that are commonly used in this structure:

Item 14 (‘It’ type 3: common adjectives)

clear, obvious

certain, true, evident

probable, likely, unlikely

(not) surprising, fortunate

 

Now ask the class in pairs to remodel these two sentences along the same lines:

Item 15 (‘It’ type 3: remodelling)

A number of factors probably contributed to the success of the advertising campaign.

(use likely)

Fento plc did not take legal action to protect their brand, which was surprising.

(use surprising at the beginning)

 

Here are the answers:

Item 16 (‘It’ type 3: remodelling: answers)

It is likely that a number of factors contributed to the success of the advertising campaign.

It was surprising that Fento plc did not take legal action to protect their brand.

 

It’s useful, by the way, to see a past tense in the second example, but present tenses are much more common.

 

OK. Let’s move on to the second impersonal subject: the word ‘There’.

Like ‘It’, it doesn’t really mean anything. It simply says that something exists. But it’s a very common way of introducing new information in the form of a noun phrase.

Show your students this example, which is likely to come at the beginning of a paragraph:

Item 17 (‘There’ example)

There is a well-established method (noun phrase) for calculating an ‘economic order quantity’ (EOQ) so as to minimize holding costs. This method, which was first developed by F.W. Harris in 1913, has since been refined over the years.

 

Now give your class some practice.

Form your students into groups or pairs, and get them to remodel these sentences, using ‘there’. It may require a bit of thinking. You may come up with alternative answers to mine.

Item 18 (‘There’ practice)

1. Organizations should be concerned about stress for three main reasons.

(Use ‘There’ at the beginning and ‘why’ later on)

2. Price wars can destroy companies, but they can be avoided in several ways.

(Use ‘there’ in the second part of the sentence.)

3. Different views will probably exist within an organization on how to make change happen.

(Use ‘There’ and ‘likely’ at the beginning)

 

Here are the answers:

Item 19 (‘There’ answers)

There are three main reasons why organizations should be concerned about stress.

Price wars can destroy companies, but there are several ways to avoid them.

There are likely to be different views within an organization on how to make change happen.

 

As mentioned, this structure is normally used to introduce new information, so it might be interesting, if you have time, to ask your class in groups to write a second and even a third sentence to follow the example sentences that you’ve just seen.

And a possible research activity would be to ask students to scan their current reading and bring in examples of ‘it’ and ‘there’ as impersonal subjects.

Before you finish, it may be worth reminding your students of another way to start their sentences objectively, which is to use an impersonal noun such as ‘research’ or ‘report’ as the subject of their sentence.

Show your students this example:

Item 20 (impersonal noun example)

The report explains how ‘business complexity’ can affect small as well as large companies.

 

Words that are frequently used in this way include:

Item 21 (common impersonal nouns)

analysis, article, data, essay, evidence, report, research, statistics, studies

 

Here are few examples of sentence-openers in this style, which your students are probably familiar with:

Item 22 (impersonal noun sentence-openers)

This essay will examine how …

This report has evaluated the arguments for …

Statistics indicate that …

Studies have shown that …

The data/evidence suggests that …

This analysis demonstrates that …

 

OK. That’s the end of this lesson (which I hope you found useful!), except for a quick revision exercise for your students:

1. Fill the gaps either with ‘it’ or ‘there’.

a) ________ may be difficult to define a ‘quality product’, but ________ is little doubt that it is seen as something worth aiming for.

b) ________ may be a number of reasons why companies seek to manage quality, but ________ is important to remember that such a search is an ongoing rather than a finite activity.

2. Rewrite these sentences by using the words in brackets near the beginning, making any changes that are necessary.

a) (important) Managers should make a distinction between a need for change that stems from an external threat, and one that results from an opportunity to do things in a different way.

b) (not unusual) Manufacturing companies often fail because they hesitate to commit the necessary resources at the right time.

Answers:

1.

a) It may be difficult to define a ‘quality product’, but there is little doubt that it is seen as something worth aiming for.

b) There may be a number of reasons why companies seek to manage quality, but it is important to remember that such a search is an ongoing rather than a finite activity.

2.

a) It is important for managers to make a distinction between a need for change that stems from an external threat, and one that results from the opportunity to do things in a different way.

b) It is not unusual for manufacturing companies to fail because they hesitate to commit the necessary resources at the right time.