Nobody wants to read a haunted sentence. Yet they happen surprisingly often. Take the following.
By reading this blog post, it may help you improve your sentences.
Can you spot the problem in the previous sentence? If so, great! If not, know that you aren’t alone. Few people can pinpoint the error or even notice that an error exists. It’s a pretty common problem for sentences starting with by, but once you know the secret and how to fix it, you’ll find it an easy problem to eliminate in your writing.
Here goes: Ask yourself, what is it in the sentence? What does it stand in for?
Now, most folks would answer “reading this blog post,” but that would be wrong. The whole phrase “By reading this blog post” describes how the mysterious it may help you improve your sentences. Therefore, it has to refer to something else.
But it doesn’t. What is it? Nothing, as it turns out. It is empty, a ghost in the sentence. That’s the problem.
The fix, though, is ridiculously simple. Remember how I said most people would think “reading this blog post” is what it refers to? There’s a good reason for that. Logically “reading this blog post” should be the subject of the sentence. When you think about what the sentence means, not what it says, “reading this blog post” is the thing that may help you improve your sentences. The by and the it aren’t needed at all.
Fixed: Reading this blog post may help you improve your sentences.
Now, please don’t go too far in the opposite direction and interpret this explanation to mean you can never start a sentence with by. By is a perfectly good word to start a sentence. For example:
By building its nest on a cliff, the bird avoids many predators that could steal eggs or young.
In this case, there’s no confusing it. The subject of the sentence, thing doing the action, is clear: “the bird.” In fact, if you are clever about it, you can have a by… it construction, as long as the context lets the reader know what it is.
This bird has a creative nesting strategy. By building its nest on a cliff, it avoids many predators that could steal eggs or young.
What’s it? The bird! Because of the context, this it isn’t empty.
Next time you revise your writing, watch out for by… it constructions. Do you have any ghosts? Banish them and make your words a haunting-free experience.