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Nonreferential “it” fills the subject position in a sentence.

Sentences with nonreferential it are used to talk about the weather, temperature, time, days of the week and holidays, distances, and the environment, as we’ll see in this entry.

The word it in 1) is a pronoun that refers to the noun phrase a flat stone. This is an example of referential “it”.

    • He picked up a flat stone and skipped it across the surface of the water.

    In 2), “it” is nonreferential; that is, it does not refer to anything. Here, it has no particular meaning by itself; it simply fills the subject position of the sentence.

    • It’s raining pretty hard.

    We know that “it” fills the subject position in 2) because, like all subjects, it undergoes subject-auxiliary inversionOpens in new window in yes/no questionsOpens in new window, as shown in 3a).

  1. It also reappears in the tag of a tag question, as shown in 3b), and contracts with has and copular be, as 3c) and 3d) illustrate.

    Notice also that like other subjects, nonreferential “it” must agree with the verb in a sentence, which is why 3e) is ungrammatical.

    1. Is it raining?
    2. It was raining earlier, wasn’t it?
    3. It’s been raining all day.
    4. It’s a rainy day.
    5. It are raining.

    SentencesOpens in new window with nonreferential “it” are used to talk about a number of things, as shown in 4).

    1. It's sunny today (Weather).
    2. It's 20 degrees below zero out there (Temperature).
    3. What time is it? (Time).
    4. It's 4:30 (Time).
    5. I'm not even sure what day of the week it is (Day).
    6. It's Tuesday, October 29 (Day).
    7. It's Halloween (Holiday).
    8. It's only 2 weeks until we go on vacation (Elapsed time).
    9. It's a good 250 miles from here to Washington, D.C. (Distance)
    10. It's so noisy in this restaurant that I can hardly hear myself think (Environment).
    11. Can you open a window? It's hot in here. (Environment).

    “It” fills the subject position in various special constructions.

    Cleft Sentences

    Nonreferential “it” appears in so-called cleft sentences as in 5) and 6).

  3. It’s my brother who got married, not me.
  4. It was 6 months ago that he got his promotion.
  5. Extraposed Subject Clauses

    Nonreferential “it” also commonly appears in constructions with certain adjectives such as amazing, interesting, remarkable, and unusual, as shown in 7), and with certain transitive verbs such as annoy, astound, depress, disturb, and upset, as shown in 8).

  6. In order for nonreferential “it” to be used in this way, the sentence must contain an extraposed subject clause—a subject clause that has been moved to the end of the sentence (extraposed).

    1. It is interesting [that you believe that].
    2. It’s unusual [to find such wisdom in someone so young].
    1. It annoys me [that he is always late].
    2. It upsets her [to see her daughter behave that way].
  7. In 7) and 8), the sentences can be converted into a structure that begins with what. For example, 7a) means the same thing as 9a), and 8a) means the same thing as 9b).

    1. What is interesting is that you believe that.
    2. What annoys me is that he is always late.
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  • References
    • The Teacher's Grammar of English with Answers: A Course Book and Reference Guide Nonreferential It (Pg 130-131) By Ron Cowan.

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