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I don't like then sentence I have just written:

"If the mat is too thick, then it becomes difficult to balance."

I believe the meaning is clear, but is it bad grammar? Specifically, I can't figure out what the word "it" doing. "It" seems to refer to the task of standing, but that isn't revealed in the sentence. It is implicit, I guess.

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    There's an answer here: english.stackexchange.com/questions/5758/…
    – Mary
    Commented Aug 8, 2022 at 0:05
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    I think what might irk you with this sentence is that if we knew nothing about mats, "it ... balance" could refer to balancing the mat. (I can see a situation where a really thick unbalanced mat can cause people to fall and roll off it and hurt themselves... surrealistically speaking...:o) I would probably have written "it becomes difficult to keep your balance" or "easy to stumble and fall"...
    – Erk
    Commented Aug 11, 2022 at 8:48
  • I'm getting great comments here.
    – Chris
    Commented Aug 12, 2022 at 23:19

2 Answers 2

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This is valid grammar, and indeed it is frequently used. The majority view among modern linguists is that in such constructions "it" is a "dummy" word, a word with no actual referent, present only because English grammar demands a subject. Others say that "it" refers to a general state of things. The difference does not affect ordinary usage. Rather each side seeks a theory to explain the common usage.

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The literal interpretation of your sentence is "Thick mats are difficult to balance." -- as in balancing the mat on a broom handle or something. I believe your intent is to say "Thick mats are difficult to balance on."

While using ambiguity is okay in fiction and sometimes even encouraged, vagueness and accident imprecision is best to be avoided. The use of 'it' in your sentence refers to the implied speaker/narrator, but in that context that pronoun can refer to the mat, as well. This is a kind of accidental imprecision -- at least, I assume you didn't do it intentional.

Your reaction to the sentence may have been your intuition that your sentence could be interpreted two ways. Again, that isn't a real problem, if you are doing on purpose. Creative ambiguity is a big part of writing intense, witty, moving, dramatic, frightening fiction.

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  • very insightful. I hand't noticed that ambiguity.
    – Chris
    Commented Aug 9, 2022 at 3:07

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