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It is not clear as to how this accident happened.

Is this kind of contruction possible?

I think this "it" is like "It is easy to do this".

Can this "as to" be inserted like that? And does it change the meaning?

PS I wrote this example.

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1. It is not clear how this accident happened. 2. It is not clear as to how this accident happened. Both sentence #1 and #2 are correct. –  Man_From_India Aug 9 at 14:06
Your example seems fine to me. :) –  F.E. Aug 9 at 16:51

3 Answers 3

It is not clear as to how this accident happened.

Your sentence sounds fine to my ear. :)

As to your usage of "it", it seems as if "it" is probably being used as a dummy pronoun. A dummy pronoun has no semantic meaning, and is used purely for syntactic function. In your example, the dummy pronoun "it" is the grammatical subject.

As to your usage of the expression "as to", it seems to be standard usage. For information related to this issue, a usage dictionary can often be helpful. For instance, in my copy of Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage, there is the entry "as to" on pages 99-101. They even talk specifically about the use of "as to" when used in front of the word "how":

2. One of the chief complaints made about as to is its superfluity when used in front of such conjunctions as how, why, and whether:

  • . . . the question as to how they should be referred to --H. L. Mencken, in Essays on Language and usage, ed. Leonard F. Dean & Kenneth G. Wilson, 2nd ed.,1963

  • They gave the royal stamp of approval to a work, and in doing so they provided clues as to how it might be read --Robert Darnton, The Kiss of Lamourette, 1990

  • . . . it should be clear as to why Joyce could find no inspiration in a cultural renaissance that found so much of theme and subject in a legendary Irish past --James T. Farrell, The League of Frightened Philistines, 1945

Also, that section ends with:

The emendation shows that as to can be omitted but does not prove that it must be omitted. It is clear that many writers find that their sentences sound better with as to retained.

Earlier in the "as to" entry (in the "1." section), there is this:

The truth is that none of the objections will stand up to comparison with evidence of actual use. As to is used in literary and general expository prose, in formal and informal settings, and in print and in speech.

MWCDEU's whole entry on "as to" might interest you, and make you feel more confident about using that expression.

That above info might be enough for you. But if you want more solid grammatical information, such as from a reference grammar, then you might be interesting in the 2002 reference grammar by Huddleston and Pullum et al., The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL). Some info is on the following pages: page 624 ("as to" in [19] discussion), page 976 ("as to" in [17]), page 979 ("as to" in [28], as to being optional), page 979 ("as to" in [32.i], as to being complement to the adjective "clear"). Note that the referred pages from 976-79 are within section "5.3 Survey of constructions containing subordinate interrogatives".

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It's a fine distinction on my part, but OP's example doesn't quite work for me. I'm fine with "I am unclear as to how it happened" (or "I am unclear as to what happened"), because they have a "tangible subject" ("I"). When it's only a syntactically-required "dummy it", the usage isn't just superfluous - it completely unravels for me. –  FumbleFingers Aug 9 at 23:01
+ 1 Nice post. Doubly useful because of the FR resources. Thanks. :) –  Araucaria Aug 10 at 22:53
+1 Great answer and that "as to" doesn't sit right with me either. I think dummy "it" is too weak semantically to bear "as to," which wouldn't be the case with an actual pronoun or noun subject. –  CocoPop Aug 11 at 2:51
@FumbleFingers I understand that "it's not clear how this accident happened" is clearly more in use, and correct for obvious reason that if we inverse the sentence it will make perfect sense - "How the accident happened is not clear". Though OP's example sentence - "It's not clear as to how this happened" - is not so common, it's not wrong for the same reason the previous sentence is right; we can also inverse this sentence to make perfect sense as well - "As to how this accident happened is not clear" –  Man_From_India Aug 11 at 3:34
@Man_From_India: I disagree, obviously, which is why I posted an answer myself (but you've prompted me to edit in further details as to why I disagree! :) –  FumbleFingers Aug 11 at 11:48

I don't think OP's example is an appropriate use of as to (which in such contexts can normally be directly replaced by regarding, concerning the matter of, in respect of, etc.).

1: It is not clear how this accident happened.
2: ?It is not clear as to how this accident happened.
3: ?There is uncertainty how this accident happened.
4: There is uncertainty as to how this accident happened.

There's probably no clear-cut "grammatical rule" here, but I don't like #2 or #3 above, and I'd like them even less if as to were replaced by any of my suggested alternatives.1

It's hardly worth trying to identify an actual "thing" referenced by it - things might seem clearer if we recast #1 as "How this accident happened is unclear", but most native speakers probably just see the usage as akin to "It's raining", "There's a storm coming". As John Lawler points out in this ELU answer...

English Rule No.1 is
Every sentence must have a subject NP.

Which to my mind means it (and there) in such constructions don't really have any "meaning" at all - they're simply forced on us by the rules of grammar/syntax. It has various names, including weather "it", existential "it", existential "it", anticipatory "it", but I'd say the first of those is misleading because it applies in more contexts than just the weather; the last because often the "real" subject is never specified.

1 But see my comment below. I don't object to as to how in general, but that seems to change in constructions with only a "dummy" subject. Recasting #2 as above...

2a: ??As to how this accident happened is unclear.
2b: As to how this accident happened, it is unclear.

...I can "fix" the (to me) unacceptable #2a by re-introducing a dummy pronoun. But note that whereas the original #1 can appear as an initial utterance, #2b is only valid in an already ongoing "conversation". That's because as to means turning [now] to, and you can't do that unless the dialogue has already started (so it has a "focus" from which you can "turn away" to discuss how the accident happened).

TL;DR: Syntactically, a wh-word (what, when, where, who, which, why and how) can serve as a "subject", but as to [how, why, etc.] can't.

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Would you consider "From here to London" to be a PP? –  F.E. Aug 11 at 18:27
And so, consider: "[From here to London] is over fifty miles." <== Is the subject function realized by a PP or NP? –  F.E. Aug 11 at 18:28
Here are some more, where the subject is a PP: "[Before the end of the week] would suit me better."; "Will [at the weekend] suffice, or do you need it sooner than that?" –  F.E. Aug 11 at 18:32
You know that a subject "must" be some kind of noun? Then what about the subject in "[From here to London] is over fifty miles"? –  F.E. Aug 11 at 21:32
So you consider the expression "From here to London" to be a noun phrase? –  F.E. Aug 11 at 22:38

That use of "it" is correct. English sentences all require a subject. When there is no subject per se, we use the dummy subject "it." This is because not every situation has a "doer" - sometimes things just happen. For instance, when rain falls from the sky, we have the verb "rain" - rain happens, so we say "IT is raining."

If you were to invert this sentence, the situation itself would become the subject and you could dispense with "it":

How this accident happened is not clear.

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@username901345 That is the sort of vital information you need to include in your question. People tend to answer the question you ask, and your question only mentions "it". –  snailboat Aug 9 at 14:36
In some grammars this "it" is called an "anticipatory it", because it stands for a subject that has been displaced after the verbal predicate. –  Nico Aug 9 at 15:22
+1 Well put for a concise answer! :) –  Araucaria Aug 10 at 22:47

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