What Are Dummy Words in English?

dummy reading blank page
In the sentence "There is nothing on the page," There functions as a dummy subject. clu/Getty Images

In English grammar, a dummy word is a word that has a grammatical function but no specific lexical meaning. Also known as a syntactic expletive or a dummy subject. In English, the verb do is sometimes referred to as the dummy auxiliary or dummy operator.

Examples and Observations

  • "That first winter, it rains and rains as if we have moved to some foreign place, away from the desert; it rains and it rains, and the water comes up to the back step and I think it will enter the house."
    (Beth Alvorado, Anthropologies: A Family Memoir. University Of Iowa Press, 2011)
  • "What do you want out of me? A marriage counselor? All I know is this: nobody's very big in the first place, and it looks to me like everybody spends their whole life tearing everybody else down."
    (Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Viking Press, 1962)
  • "Everything was so still. Occasionally there were the hums and clicks of a lawnmower or the shrieks of a band of children heading home from school. There were the insects and the birds. It was a straightforward, simple life she had chosen."
    (Alice Elliott Dark, "In the Gloaming." The New Yorker, 1994)
  • "Do" as the Dummy Operator and "It" as a Dummy Subject
    "[T]he verb do, used as an auxiliary, is often called the dummy operator because it has no meaning of its own but exists simply to fill the 'slot' of operator when an operator is needed to form (for example) negative or interrogative sentences. In a similar way, it can be called a dummy subject when it fills the subject slot in sentences like: It's a pity that they wasted so much time."
    (Geoffrey N. Leech, A Glossary of English Grammar. Edinburgh University Press, 2006)
  • Dummy Pronouns
    - "There are also pronouns that don't mean anything at all. Dummy pronouns, they're called, and we come across them all the time (you read one in the previous sentence). They're those pronouns that exist only because the English language demands that each sentence contain a subject: the it in 'It's raining' or the there in 'There is a shed in my back yard.' (Note: the there only works as an example of a dummy pronoun if I am not pointing to a shed, and am nowhere near my back yard.)"
    (Jessica Love, "They Get to Me." The American Scholar, Spring 2010)

    - "In the case of reference, the meaning of a dummy word can be determined by what is imparted before or after the occurrence of the dummy word. In general, the dummy word is a pronoun.
    I see John is here. He hasn't changed a bit.
    She certainly has changed. No, behind John. I mean Karin."
    (J. Renkema, Discourse Studies. John Benjamins, 2004)
  • "There" as a Dummy Subject
    "By using there as a dummy subject, the writer or speaker can delay introducing the real subject of the sentence. There is called a dummy subject . . . because it has no meaning in itself--its function is to put the real subject in a more prominent position."
    (Sara Thorne, Mastering Advanced English Language. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)