"It" as a Dummy Subject in Grammar

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The word "it" can be 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 pronoun it, 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.

Examples and Observations

Here are some examples:

  • It is hot, it is late, and it is time to go.
  • It will be morning soon.
  • Juan Williams
    But it is a new day. The need for honest conversations across racial as well as ethnic and religious lines has never been greater.
  • William Faukner
    He did not know it was midnight and he did not know how far he had come.
  • It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia
    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.
  • Penelope Fitzgerald
    It's a pity that Kattie couldn't be here tonight.
  • Sean Astin, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
    It's a shame, really. Lady Galadriel gave me that. Real elvish rope.
  • Bob Dylan
    And it ain't no use to sit and wonder why, babe,
    If you don't know by now.
  • Wallace Stevens
    It was evening all afternoon.
    It was snowing
    And it was going to snow.
    The blackbird sat
    In the cedar-limbs.
  • Christopher J. Halle
    [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.

    Verbs That Accompany Ambient It

    • James D. McCawley
      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).

    Subject Extraposition

    • Rodney D. Huddleston
      Clauses with a subordinate clause subject generally have variants with the subordinate clause at the end and dummy it as the subject:
      - a. That he was acquitted disturbs her.
      - b. It disturbs her that he was acquitted.

    Using Dummy It in African-American Vernacular English

    • Fern L. Johnson
      The use of dummy it (Labov, 1972a) corresponds to particular meanings in AAVE. Roughly equivalent to SAE there, 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.

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