The Anticipatory 'It' in English Grammar

'It' Stands in for Subject, Which Shows Up Later

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In English grammar, anticipatory "it" involves the placement of the pronoun "it" in the usual subject position of a sentence as a stand-in for the postponed subject, which appears after the verb. It is also called an extraposed subject. Anticipatory "it" tends to place the emphasis on the verb or (more commonly) on the noun phrase that follows the verb. 

When the subject works better at the end of the sentence, anticipatory "it" is often the best way to go, and it's commonly heard in everyday speech and found regularly in all types of writing.

Shifting Nominal Clauses to the End

Gerald C. Nelson and Sidney Greenbaum discuss nominal clauses in "An Introduction to English Grammar" (2013):

"It is unusual to have a nominal clause as the subject of the sentence:  That they canceled the concert  is a pity.

Instead the subject is usually moved to the end (the postponed subject), and its position is taken by "it" (the anticipatory subject): It is a pity that the concert was canceled.

Here are some more examples:

  • It is likely that we'll be moving to Glasgow.
  • It doesn't matter to me who pays for my ticket.
  • It's impossible to say when they are arriving.
  • It has not been announced whether negotiations between the employers and the employees have broken down.

The exception is that nominal -ing clauses are natural in the normal subject position:

  • Having a good self-image keeps me sane.
  • Living in France was a wonderful experience."

Anticipatory 'It,' Dummy 'It' and Preparatory 'It'

Bas Aarts, Sylvia Chalker, and Edmund Weiner sort through more grammatical "it" details in "The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar" from 2014.

"In the first sentence below, 'it' is an anticipatory subject (the grammatical subject), and in the second sentence 'it' is an anticipatory object:

  • It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
  • I take it that you agree with me.

"There is considerable confusion in the usage of the terms available to describe the various functions of the word 'it.' For some grammarians, anticipatory 'it' (used with extraposition) and preparatory 'it' are identical, but they distinguish this usage from dummy 'it,'  as in 'It is raining.' Others use all or some of these terms differently or use one of them as an umbrella term."

Examples of Anticipatory 'It'

  • It is a shame that the break-in wasn't immediately reported to the police.
  • It is clear that inadequate resources will have an impact on the care of children with disabilities. 
  • "It's no concern of mine what happens in this village, so long as my customers don't quarrel when they're in here." -- John Rhode (Cecil Street), "Murder at Lilac Cottage" (1940)
  • "It is time you stopped working. You are the head of the family and it is right that you should be at home to see that everything is in order." -- Masti Venkatesha Iyengar, "The Curds-Seller" in "Best Loved Indian Stories, Volume 2" ed. by Indira Srinivasan and Chetna Bhatt (1999)