"by doing that, it..."

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Mon Dec 4 16:58:07 UTC 2006

heard from an interviewee on NPR's Morning Edition, 11/28/06:
   ... by doing that, it takes away a lot of the...

quite a few web hits for "by doing that, it" -- ca. 38,700 -- and of
course more would turn up for VPs other than "do that".

i have heard composition teachers complain about this "wordy" use of
   (1) by VP1ing, it VP2s
where teachers would recommend
   (2) VP1ing VP2s
and i sympathize with this reaction.  however, i think i understand
what moves speakers and writers to use the "by" version, (1): it
allows them to introduce a new topic via VP1, then to say something
about this discourse referent.  version (2) has VP1 in subject
position, which is especially good for expressions denoting old
information (already topical referents).  (this is why subjects are
so often pronominal -- as in fact the subject of (1) is.)  version
(2) introduces a new topic in a position where you expect already
topical material; you can get away with this, but it makes the hearer/
reader work a bit.

fixes to (1) that would preserve its virtues make the sentence even
longer -- for example, things like
   (3) if/when NP VP1s, that VP2s
in addition, these expanded versions require that you supply a
subject for VP1, and this might be no more substantial than a generic
"we".  in the circumstances, maybe (2), with its heavy subject, is to
be preferred.  or some more massive re-working would be required.

the point is that people who use the construction in (1) are trying
to structure their discourse for their audience.  in a way, it's a
shame that the construction isn't standard.


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