Beware the Phantom Doer



This email is to inform you that.... No, wait a minute; let me start again.

There are a few reasons I'm emailing you.... Ugh. Nope.

It is interesting to consider the effects of writing on.... Oh my goodness.

It is recommended that writers... OK I give up.

Starting an email isn't always easy—and neither is avoiding the Phantom Doer. In fact, these types of non-doers tend to rear their ugly heads most often when we're just getting started. And when we start our sentences with a doer who's not really doing the action, we fail to tell our readers what they often need to know: Who's doing it?!?

Let's back up a little. What's a Phantom Doer, and what's a doer, while we're at it? I use doer for the "subject" (in grammar-speak) of a sentence—whoever, or whatever, is doing the action. For example, note the concrete doers in the sentences below.

  • Security unlocked the doors early today.

  • This applicant has fifteen years of experience in education.

  • My supervisor asked me to submit the attached file for review.

  • This proposal looks good to me.

In all the examples above, readers learn two key pieces of information ASAP:

  • Who's doing something?

  • What are they doing?

Readers learn easily because the sentences offer this concrete information right away. In many cases, though, we accidentally start our sentences slowly—often with extra fluff included—without a "real" doer. Sentences without a "real" doer up front often start with what I call a Phantom Doer—a noun, yes, but not a noun who's really doing anything.

Let's look at a few common cases of Phantom Doer use. The following sentences fail to begin with a "real" doer—someone actually doing the action—but instead open with empty nouns—Phantom Doers:

  • This is to inform you that your subscription will expire in two weeks.

  • It is difficult to quantify the many benefits of doing volunteer work.

  • There are a few issues with this data.

You might've noticed one of the consequences of the Phantom Doer in the sentences above: fluff. By starting a sentence without actual information, we often bring fluff words along for the ride. In the above examples, we see lots of words like is, in, to, with, of, are. While these words can be useful at times of course, they often lack their own inherent meaning. What does it mean to "is"?

So how can we avoid the Phantom Doer, and in doing so, cut the fluff and inform our readers more quickly? Usually, by finding out who's actually doing something, and moving them up to the front of the sentence. This replaces a Phantom Doer with a real doer. Check out the following revision examples:

Before: This is to inform you that your subscription will expire in two weeks.

After: Your subscription will expire in two weeks.

(You) Renew now to avoid service interruptions.

Before: It is difficult to quantify the many benefits of doing volunteer work.

After: Volunteering provides many benefits.

Volunteers develop new skills and learn about others.

(You) Volunteer today to give back and make some friends along the way.

Before: There are a few issues with this data.

After: This data hasn't been vetted by all departments.

(You) Please analyze this data for bias.

The new analyst found some issues with this data.

Most of our readers are busy. Don't make them hunt for vital information like who's involved with an issue and what they're doing. Although we never intend to make our readers work for it, we sometimes accidentally put them in that position by omitting information about who's accountable or responsible for something. One great way to ensure readers get information ASAP includes leading with concrete doers whenever feasible.

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