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It"s the Real Thing: Dummy "It" in English Grammar


The use of it as a subject (or dummy subject) in sentences about times, dates, and the weather (such as, It's raining) and in certain idioms (It's OK). Also known as ambient "it" or empty "it."

Unlike the ordinary pronounit, dummy it refers to nothing at all; it simply serves a grammatical function. In other words, dummy it has a grammatical meaning but no lexical meaning.

See Examples and Observations below.

Also see:


Examples and Observations

  • It is hot, it is late, and it is time to go.
  • It will be morning soon.
  • "But it is a new day. The need for honest conversations across racial as well as ethnic and religious lines has never been greater."
    (Juan Williams, Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate. Crown Publishers, 2011)
  • "He did not know it was midnight and he did not know how far he had come."
    (William Faulkner, "Barn Burning," 1939)
  • Waitress: Wow, why are you so sweaty?
    Charlie Kelly:It's really hot in here.
    Waitress: It's not hot, it's freezing.
    Charlie Kelly: It's freezing, isn't it. They are blazing that AC.
    ("The Gang Sells Out." It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, 2007)
  • "It's a pity that Kattie couldn't be here tonight."
    (Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop. Gerald Duckworth, 1978)
  • "It's a shame, really. Lady Galadriel gave me that. Real elvish rope."
    (Sean Astin as Sam in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, 2002)

  • "And it ain't no use to sit and wonder why, babe,
    If you don't know by now."
    (Bob Dylan, "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," 1963)
  • "It was snowing"
    "It was evening all afternoon.
    It was snowing
    And it was going to snow.
    The blackbird sat
    In the cedar-limbs."
    (Wallace Stevens, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird")

    "[S]nowing is just snowing: not even God can snow, and although we can be snowed on, in, or under, the meaning of the verb snow just doesn't require anything to be snowed (except snow itself, I suppose, but that would be a little redundant). So semantics doesn't explain why we need to express a subject, even a 'dummy' one like it in It is snowing."
    (Christopher J. Hall, An Introduction to Language and Linguistics: Breaking the Language Spell. Continuum, 2005)
  • Verbs That Accompany Ambient It
    "Ambient it occurs only in combination with a limited set of verbs and predicate adjectives that express 'environmental conditions' (especially, but not exclusively, the weather):
    (8a) It was raining/snowing/thundering/pouring.
    (8b) It was hot/cold/pleasant/delightful/unbearable/disgusting/uncomfortable in the attic.
    (8c) I like/enjoy/hate it here.
    (8d) It's third down and twelve to go.
    (8e) It's intermission now.
    (8e') It's 4:00.
    In most instances ambient it is the subject of its clause either in surface structure or in what is arguably the deep structure (as in the case of The lake makes it pleasant here, which allows an analysis in which the deep structure direct object of make is a sentence It is pleasant here whose subject is ambient it)."
    (James D. McCawley, The Syntactic Phenomena of English, 2nd ed. University of Chicago Press, 1998)
  • Subject Extraposition
    "Clauses with a subordinate clause subject generally have variants with the subordinate clause at the end and dummy it as the subject:
    i a. That he was acquitted disturbs her.
    i b. It disturbs her that he was acquitted."
    (Rodney D. Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, A Student's Introduction to English Grammar. Cambridge University Press, 2005)
  • The Use of Dummy It in African-American Vernacular English
    "The use of dummy it (Labov, 1972a) corresponds to particular meanings in AAVE. Roughly equivalent to SAEthere, it can be found in contexts such as the following: 'It wasn't nothing to do' and "It's a new car,' which compare to SAE 'There wasn't nothing to do' and 'There's a new car.' This dummy it exists in Gullah as well and is likely a direct retention from plantation creole."
    (Fern L. Johnson, Speaking Culturally: Language Diversity in the United States. Sage, 2000)


Also Known As: ambient "it," introductory "it," prop "it," empty "it," nonreferential "it"

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