17

I read a dialogue. It went like this:

A: Is this your family?
B: Yes, it is.
A: What a big family! Is this your sister?
B: Yes, it is. Her name is Linda. (I think this should be "Yes, she is")
A: Are these your grandparents?
B: Yes, they are. My mum's parents are on the left.

I was confused here by "Yes, it is". I believe it should be "Yes, she is", because "it" generally is referring to person instead of object. But is there any exception, for instance, this dialogue?

Also, 'it' generally is referring to a thing, animal and baby instead of an adult. Isn't it?

  • Didn't you mean because "it" generally is referring to an object instead of a person? – kiamlaluno Oct 8 '16 at 14:41
  • 1
    If the question were Is she your sister? then the answer would be Yes, she is. But note that the question here is instead: Is this your sister? This makes either "it" or "she" acceptable, but it is idiomatic in the dialogue you report, for the reason given in @FumbleFingers 's correct answer below. – P. E. Dant Oct 9 '16 at 2:44
  • In this case, it refers to a sentence as a whole, not to the person the sentence is talking about. See my answer for an explanation. – jpaugh Oct 9 '16 at 2:53
  • I never even consciously realised we did this (but we do). – Lightness Races in Orbit Oct 9 '16 at 14:32

10 Answers 10

16

In OP's context, it is effectively a "dummy" pronoun, which doesn't have or need a gender. As in...

[Knock knock]
Who's there? (or Who is it?)
It's only me!

  • 5
    It's me is not the same thing at all. That is a dummy pronoun. It's raining is too. – Lambie Oct 8 '16 at 16:15
  • @Lambie: I think you'd have a hard time justifying a clear-cut distinction in this context. I'm not sure if you actually mean the word "that" is a dummy pronoun (in, say, That'll be Bob knocking on the door), but somewhere along the line you'll have to deal with usages like What is it with you? where I seriously doubt all grammarians would agree on what to call it (or indeed, what exactly "it" refers to there). – FumbleFingers Oct 8 '16 at 17:34
  • I know we're getting a little away from the original question with this, but your example of "what is it with you?", I'd argue that if the "it" is not explicitly defined, e.g.: "What is it with you that makes you so lovable?", it's probably implied/assumed based on previous context or even off of actions solely. I'd never ask "what is it with you?" without some further context. It's not really a complete question without at least a sentence before or after it to lend some significance to what exactly 'it' is. – carbide20 Oct 8 '16 at 20:54
  • The Wikipedia page on dummy pronouns expressly states: "Unlike a regular pronoun of English, it cannot be replaced by any noun phrase (except for, rhetorically permitting, something like 'the state of affairs' or 'the fact of the matter'.)" It's hard to tell if they're referring to dummy pronouns in general with that distinction, or if they're referring only to the given example "It is raining". If that distinction is a requirement for a dummy pronoun, I'd argue that the "Yes it is" in the OP's question could easily be replaced by "this photo is my sister" and therefore not a dummy pronoun. – carbide20 Oct 8 '16 at 21:05
  • 1
    A better fit to the OP's question is that it refers to the implicit assertion This is your sister, and says, effectively, "Yes, that's correct." – jpaugh Oct 9 '16 at 2:54
13

In this case, 'it' doesn't actually refer to the person. It refers to the concept. Here's an example:

If we're talking about someone present, you'd call them 'you' or by name.

If we're talking about someone who is not present, you'd generally use 'he' or 'she'.

But consider cases where you aren't talking directly about the person, but about a concept of the person, or a representation of a person. Consider someone at the door: "who is it". "it is me, your sister!" In this case, we're not really talking strictly about who the person is. We're talking about who is at the door. This quickly becomes an abstract concept, rather than a direct reference to the person themselves.

In your example, I assume that the dialogue is based around looking at photos / pictures of family members. When pointing to a picture of a person, it is natural to refer to the picture as 'it', because it a representation of a person, not a real present person. If I were to meet their sister in person, I could ask the same question: "Who is this?", but your answer would definitely NOT be "it is my sister" in the presence of your sister. You'd say "she is my sister", or "this is my sister".

The difference is subtle. In the case of a concept of a person, consider that the person at the door, on the phone, or in the picture is not (or not yet) present in person, so they're represented by an idea of a person. "There's a person on the phone." "Who is it?" you see that the 'it' really refers to the concept of "the person who is on the phone", not "the person that is here in front of me that I'm referring to directly". It can quickly become demeaning to call people 'it' when they're in the room, but as soon as they transition from a real presence into a distant concept, that concept is really what's being referred to with 'it', not strictly the person themselves.

  • 5
    Another good example, which should be part of your phone example, is how we describe who's calling. "Who's on the phone?" "It's your sister" or "It's the President" or "It's Jackie". – Readin Oct 9 '16 at 2:11
  • Very good example, I thorougly agree! – carbide20 Oct 9 '16 at 3:03
  • @Readin It is another example of how the dummy "it" is used in English. The pronoun stands in for the subject when the full subject would be too wordy, e.g. “The person with whom I was on the phone is your sister.” – Mari-Lou A Oct 9 '16 at 15:11
  • 1
    You updated the advice but now use something not on the list, in the same sentence that’s giving it: «someone who is not present, you'd generally call them» – JDługosz Oct 11 '16 at 1:18
6

I don't know the precise terminology although I am familiar with the concept of a dummy pronoun, in the case of the dialogue cited by the OP, the reason why the speaker uses the impersonal pronoun can be explained fairly easily.

A: Is this your sister?

Apparently the speaker is pointing a photo, if the speaker were indicating a person in the room, they would have said something similar to:

A: Is she your sister? You both look alike.

The listener responds to the first question

B: Yes, it is (my sister). Her name's Linda

Speaker B acknowledges that the photo (i.e. ‘it’ ) is (showing) her sister.


I see that I have said pretty much the same thing as @lambie and @carbide20, but maybe my explanation is clearer.

  • "It" would be correct here even if the reference were not to an image (which isn't really implied in the question, I think) because the response is to the question Is this your sister? and not to the question Is she your sister? – P. E. Dant Oct 9 '16 at 2:49
  • @P.E.Dant B's answer refers to the first question, I stated it clearly. – Mari-Lou A Oct 9 '16 at 6:22
2

It is used also as dummy pronoun, such as in it's me, and when referring to an animal or child of unspecified sex.

She was holding the baby, cradling it and smiling into its face.

As attributive, it is used to denote a person or thing that is exceptionally fashionable, popular, or successful at a particular time.

They were Hollywood's It couple.

So, yes, there is an exception to it being used only for objects.

  • I stretched a point by saying in my own answer that OP's example is effectively a dummy pronoun, but I think to say the same about your cradling it and smiling into its face is a stretch too far. – FumbleFingers Oct 8 '16 at 14:48
  • I am not sure it's a stretch. That is how it is used, even if probably you don't find too much that kind of sentence. – kiamlaluno Oct 8 '16 at 14:52
  • There's nothing particularly unusual about your example. I just don't think it's appropriate to call it a "dummy pronoun" usage. To be honest, unless someone can show me a convincing counterexample I'm not convinced the possessive form its can ever be a true "dummy" usage. – FumbleFingers Oct 8 '16 at 15:03
  • Maybe I was not clear, but I am talking of two different things: it used as dummy pronoun AND it used when referring to an animal or child of unspecified sex. The second example is: "She was holding the baby, cradling it and smiling into its face." ("She was hold the baby, cradling the baby, and smiling into the baby's face.") – kiamlaluno Oct 8 '16 at 15:08
  • 1
    Who's she? The cat's mother? Pronouns are always potentially "risky". :) – FumbleFingers Oct 8 '16 at 17:12
1

FumbleFinger's answer is correct in this case, but to answer your title question: there are some gender non-conforming people who use it/it/its pronouns, though they are a decided minority of the queer population. In other words, you would generally not use "it" to refer to a person outside of a dummy pronoun/infant situation unless they specifically asked you to. Singular they is definitely the most common among such pronouns.

  • I might say this in the other order: no, "it/it/its" cannot be used to refer to a person; "they/them/their" are the most common gender-neutral pronouns. A small number of people actually do choose to use "it/it/its" for themselves, but they're a minority within a minority, and most others would find "it/it/its" offensive. – Cascabel Oct 9 '16 at 5:29
1

A: What a big family! Is this your sister?

This sounds like you are pointing to a picture of your sister.

B: Yes, it is. Her name is Linda. (I think this should be "Yes, she is")

It therefore refers to that picture. We're not 100% sure since we don't have a complete picture of the conversation, but that's probably what it is.

The pronoun it is not used to refer to people, or used for cases of unknown or indistinct gender. It can be used to refer to something not stated, or assumed in conversation but obvious to both speaker and listener.

If you break this rule, it sounds like you are "depersonalizing" the person and acting like he or she is not a real human being.

A: Don't talk to my brother like that.

B: "It" needs to leave now. (B is treating A's brother like he is not a person, and being insulting)

1

Usually, you would want to say "Yes, she is." (Just like what you said.) Using "it" might often be grammatically correct (meaning that it doesn't violate a rule of grammar), but is considered rude.

One major exception is for newborn babies of unknown gender. e.g., when the baby is born, a person may say, "It's a boy!" (One would think the proper phrase would be "He's a boy!" However, in this case, the word "it" refers to a baby that, momentarily ago, wasn't identified as being male or female.)

Another case I can think of: Let's say a person dresses up as a goat. Maybe this is for a Halloween costume. Maybe someone thinks that is your sister in disguise, but actually isn't sure if the picture is showing a human, or something else (like a goat). In that case, a person might point at a part of the picture, and use the word "it", referring to the object which a person might not have realized is human.

In any case, using "it" instead of "she" is probably either rude, or unusual. You're quite right in thinking that "she" would probably be more appropriate.

  • 1
    I wouldn't answer with she unless the question also contained she. No obvious rule, but it just sounds wrong. Is she your sister? No, she's my aunt. Is that your sister? No, it's my aunt. – user42911 Oct 9 '16 at 9:52
  • "it's my aunt"? Not "that's my aunt"? (I could see "that's my aunt", particularly as a response.) "it" just sounds quite wrong to me. (I'm American. Based on your username, @BlokeDownThePub , I'm guessing you're not American.) – TOOGAM Oct 9 '16 at 13:08
1

In this case, the pronoun it refers not to a person, but to the previous sentence, or rather to the meaning of the sentence. It's another way of saying, "What you said is correct." or "What you said is true."

In any question like this,

A: Is this your family?

where the answer is either yes or no, there is an implicit assertion that "This is your family." (You can also make the assertion explict, like this: "Is it true that this is your family?") That implicit assertion is what the it refers to, and that's why all of the following are valid responses:

  • Yes, it is.

  • Yes, this is my family. (repeating the assertion)

  • Yes, the fact that this is my family is true.

In the second example, we've replaced the pronoun it with the referent (the thing it refers to). The last one is a little strained, but certainly valid English.

  • Well apart from "they" which would be British English, as in: They are my family, what other pronoun would you use for the singular noun "family"? The question is centered on an individual who is female. Substituting the noun family with the pronoun "it" creates no difficulty or ambiguity whatsoever. – Mari-Lou A Oct 9 '16 at 6:33
0

Is Mary [Is she] your sister? Yes, SHE is.

Is THIS [person] your sister. Yes, IT is. That's how it works. The word /this/ implies a person, which in the sentence is an object.

  • 2
    "Yes, she is" would be my answer for both questions. – Crowley Oct 8 '16 at 15:50
  • 1
    Yes, [the person pointed out as an object] it is my sister. The answer is not, Yes, she is. This is a diectic....Even if pointing to a picture or image of a person or the person, the question: Is THIS your sister is not same as Is SHE your sister. – Lambie Oct 8 '16 at 16:17
  • @Lambie: You've chosen to "paraphrase" as the person pointed out as an object to justify your inflexible position, but someone else might just as reasonably paraphrase as the woman pointed out as an object (given it's a picture, the sex of the person should be contextually obvious). – FumbleFingers Oct 8 '16 at 17:38
  • 1
    In BrE, the answer to "Is this your sister?" can be either "Yes, it is" or "Yes, she is". Personally, I would probably use "it," since neither "this" nor "it" explicitly specify a gender. But the answer to "Is she/Mary your sister?" can only be "Yes, she is," unless you intentionally want to insult Mary by referring to her as "thing" rather than as a human. – alephzero Oct 8 '16 at 18:29
  • The answers are confusing and there is a lot of overlap. I tried to answer it as SIMPLY as humanly possible. All I said was that the deictic pronoun implies an object. A picture is an object. – Lambie Oct 9 '16 at 15:42
0

Sometimes "it" may be used for an unnamed person (or a person who's name and sex are unknown.) An unnamed baby may be referred to as "it" before learning its name (see) or sex.

Rare uses may be to create or humor or in a derogatory manner: "I met this creep at a party; it tried to pick me up."

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