10

We usually use pronouns to refer back to people or things that we already mentioned.

Can we use pronouns before we mention the noun?

A: Are you going to the game?
B: No, it's sold out. There aren't any tickets left.

  • 17
    The speaker doesn't have to be the one who mentioned the antecedent noun, and in fact, there doesn't have to be any vocal mention at all. A friend could point to a movie poster on the wall and ask you, Do you intend to see it? – Tᴚoɯɐuo Mar 13 '17 at 20:51
  • 5
    Here is a very natural example (using "she" rather than "it") where the pronoun comes before the noun: "When asked why she was late, Sally explained that she had a flat tire." The noun does not need to come first. It just needs to be understood in context. – Waylan Mar 14 '17 at 15:47
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    What about "it's going to rain"? Or the classic purple prose "It was a dark and stormy night". – Matthew Watson Mar 14 '17 at 16:28
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    @MatthewWatson: In those cases, "it" is not a reference to something said earlier, or something that will be said later. This often trips up non-native speakers which come from a language where the equivalent sentence would just be "going to rain". – MSalters Mar 14 '17 at 16:56
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    @MSalters: It trips me up, because I come from a language in which "going to rain" is not valid (ie, German and English) and "it's going to" is far too close for my taste. – Hector von Mar 14 '17 at 17:52
17

As Rob K mentions in his answer: In your example A has already defined the context, so "it" is perfectly clear.

However, it is not uncommon to say a pronoun without context, but it is awkward since the listener would not know the reference. You would have to add some further explanation what you mean.

A. I'm sorry, it's completely sold out
B. What are you referring to?
A. The game. It's completely sold out.

I don't think this is unique to English, since it's more about the general quirks of pronouns or any ambiguous part of speech.

  • 3
    This would be perfectly ordinary if the conversation took place at a stadium box office, though. – chrylis Mar 14 '17 at 2:57
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    Yeah, if you're walking into a box office and they say "Sorry, it's all sold out." And you say "What is?" then you're a bit of a twat – theonlygusti Mar 14 '17 at 8:22
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    Also not uncommon as a rhetorical device. – rackandboneman Mar 14 '17 at 12:13
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    @theonlygusti In all fairness, you could also be really drunk. – Andrew Mar 14 '17 at 15:06
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    I've heard this referred to as "the pronoun game" - because you're making people guess what "it" (or "he" or "she") refers to. – Ghotir Mar 14 '17 at 15:37
34

The noun ("the game") has already been mentioned by the questioner, so it's understood from context that 'it' refers to the game.

6

It is also used for the impersonal form in English or when referring to something implied.

For example: It's raining ("it" apparently being the weather.) It's Friday ("it" refers to the day.)

It can also be used before the thing it describes for emphasis:

It's illegal to litter (could be "to litter is illegal" and "it" must refer to the act of littering.) It's dangerous to go alone ("it" refers to going alone before it is introduced.)

  • 1
    long cat is long - it's a long cat. That's the level style I associate with "it". – Hector von Mar 14 '17 at 17:53
5

To add to the good answers dealing with the specific case mentioned in the question, it's also possible to use a pronoun before the noun without other context to help, as in the first line of Philip Larkin's poem (I've replaced the second word with a rough synonym):

They [mess] you up, your mum and dad

  • 4
    Advertisers sometimes do this: they might start an advert with "It's coming...", building up anticipation, before the "big reveal" of what "it" actually is. (Which is usually something far more mundane than the anticipation they tried to create :-)) – TripeHound Mar 14 '17 at 11:46
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    Be careful of using poems to illustrate what's conventional in English. Poetry plays by its own rules sometimes, and I wouldn't want to encourage learners to assume they can always use the same sentence structure as a peom does. (Nothing wrong in this specific case, just a general warning). – Toby Speight Mar 14 '17 at 13:14
3

It's certainly possible that "it" references something not said yet.

For instance, one might say "You know it's going to to be expensive, if you can buy the new popular toy at all this Christmas". Here, "it" refers to "(to buy) the new popular toy" which is not mentioned yet.

This is of course equivalent to "You know the new popular toy is going to to be expensive, if you can buy it at all this Christmas" - you just swap the subjects.

1

Just to summarize what everyone's saying: The antecedent does not have to be explicitly mentioned, but obviously the speakers need to know what is being referred to, which they typically will through context.

1

Yes, English allows pronouns to be used before the thing they refer to.

The quote in your question is not an example of this usage, since the "it" in the answer refers to "the game" in the question, which has already been mentioned. It is very normal to use a pronoun to refer to something which has already been named during the conversation:

Is Mary there? No, she went out. When will she be back? I don't know. She didn't say.

All of those pronouns refer to "Mary", who was mentioned by name in the first sentence.

But it is quite common to use pronouns, especially "it", before the thing they refer to. Or even, in the case of "it", without a reference at all.

The sentence which I just wrote is an example of one of those usages. "But it is quite common...". Here, the pronoun "it" can only refer to the action which follows: "to use pronouns...".

I could have avoided that by writing "Using pronouns, especially 'it', before the thing they refer to is very common." But practically no-one would write that because the property "is very common" is too far away from the action "Using pronouns".

To me, the second version sounds unnatural, which is why I didn't write it that way in the first place. I wanted to emphasize the commonness of the act, so I had to put that first in the sentence. There are languages which allow the copulative ("is") to come first in a sentence, but not in English:

(Incorrect) Is very common to use pronouns before...

In order to make that a correct English sentence, I have to put a subject before the verb "is", so I choose the "dummy" pronoun "it".

Another even more common form of the dummy pronoun is the so-called "weather it". This use of "it" is called the "weather it" because it is almost needed to talk about the weather:

It is still raining.

It was warmer yesterday.

It's going to be a great day tomorrow.

Some people say that this "it" refers to the general state of the world, or something like that. But mostly it is just grammatical filler. "Raining" is a verb, so the grammar requires a subject.

Another example of dummy subjects is sentences which start "There is" or "There are":

There are lots of people waiting for me.

There is a great film at the cinema.

Again, the pronoun "there" is being used only because the grammar requires it. You could say that the pronoun refers to the line of people or the excellent film, but I don't think that is really correct. You couldn't replace the pronoun with the thing it is supposedly referring to:

(incorrect) A great film is a great film at the cinema.

With a few verbs, you need to use a dummy "it" as an object:

I hate it that you can't see in the dark.

Or maybe you don't need to use it: some English speakers would find it equally natural to say "I hate that you can't see in the dark". How strong the need to insert an "it" depends both on the speaker and the particular verb. "Hate" really seems to want the "it", whereas "think" doesn't allow it at all ("I think it that..." is wrong). This particular usage is a lot more common in German, and I suspect that is why in English it is used more with some verbs (with Germanic roots) than others.

Finally, there are cases where pronouns are used before the thing they reference for reasons of emphasis, or style, or just because it sounds good. Linguists call these "cataphoric pronouns", but there is little agreement about what their function is. For example:

As soon as he got home, John called his mother.

This is a real reference; we could put the noun first and the pronoun second and the sentence would sound just as natural:

As soon as John got home, he called his mother.

These two sentences are not identical, but it is very hard to say what the difference is. Some linguists would say that the first sentence "started out" as:

John called his mother as soon as he got home

and that it was transformed by putting the phrase "as soon as he got home" at the beginning of the sentence, in order to create some shade of meaning. So the pronoun was "originally" following the reference, but when the sentence finally found its way into the speaker's mouth, the words just came out in a different order. But if that were the case, how could "As soon as John got home, he called his mother" be correct? Yet it certainly is correct, and it is probably exactly as common as the cataphoric usage (where the pronoun comes first).

In any case, this is not always possible. For example, no-one would say:

(incorrect) As soon as he got home, he called John's mother.

because the pronoun "he" cannot apply to "John" in this case. The mother being called is John's mother, not the person who just got home, who is not named (and should have been referred to before).

Unlike the dummy pronoun uses, which are often required, this usage is totally optional, and language learners should probably use it with care. But you will find many examples in both spoken and written English.

  • 1
    I would regard constructs like "it is common for XXX to YYY" as using the "weather it". With regard to the "cataphoric" pronouns, I think there is a slight difference in emphasis between "When John did X, he did Y", "When he did X, John did Y", and "John did Y when he did X". The first emphasizes that X was done by John and Y was done simultaneously; (by the person doing X, which happened to be John). The second emphasizes that Y was done, by John, simultaneously with X (also performed by him). The third emphasizes that John did Y (which happened to be at the same time as he did X). – supercat Mar 15 '17 at 15:08
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    @supercat: the two uses of "it" are very similar, and probably this is a linguistic question out of scope here. They are, I think, both expletive uses, but one involves the copulative and the other involves an active verb. You can rephrase "it is common" by inverting the copulation -- "that X does Y is very common" -- which suggests that the pronoun has a reference, in some sense. It's an interesting debate, about which I don't have a firm opinion. I agree that the cataphor changes emphasis but it also can be purely aesthetic. A clear and general rule is hard to formulate. – rici Mar 15 '17 at 15:24
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    I think the most important thing to consider is that pronouns within certain kinds of clauses and phrases tend to bind to key nouns which appear later in the sentence, rather than to nouns from preceding ones. "After Joe tied his shoelaces in knots, Fred was unable to walk". Parsing up to "knots", one would expect that "his" would likely refer to the subject of the attached sentence, which might or might not be Joe. If the subject was another male, but Joe's laces were tied, "his" should have become "his own". – supercat Mar 15 '17 at 15:40
  • 1
    @supercat, yes, we are capable of reparsing sentences and that is an example. But I think most stylists would discourage that sort of ambiguity, and I don't know how common it is in spoken discourse. Reflexive pronouns are a common linguistic feature and they certainly help disambiguate, which can be necessary even with anaphoric pronouns. Gender is also useful in English ("Mary and John were here. She told him to ...").... – rici Mar 15 '17 at 15:57
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    ... Interesting side note: there is some evidence that when you are reading and a reparse is necessary, or even to resolve an anaphoric reference, that your eyes actually move back over the material. That's not possible when listening, which suggests the possibility that there are fundamental differences in the method we use to understand spoken and written discourse. (Second-language understanding is also complicated.) – rici Mar 15 '17 at 16:02
0

There's a joke based on this mistaken notion. It roughly goes like this:

Wife: Can you get 2 sticks of butter from the supermarket, and if they're available a dozen eggs?
Husband: OK!
...
Wife: Did you get the eggs?
Husband: No, they were all out of butter.

"They" obviously should refer forward to "a dozen eggs", not back to "sticks of butter."

  • 1
    I like that, though depending upon context cancelling the order for the later ingredients if the former were unavailable might be reasonable [at least for other combinations of ingredients]. Even reading the sentence only as far as the word "available", however, I think "they're" would most naturally parse as an identifying as-yet-unspecified objects, since the butter sticks could have been referred to with the "those are". – supercat Mar 15 '17 at 15:17
  • Similar issues arise with personal pronouns. "Joe is coming to the party. And once he gets off work, Dave will come too." If the intention was to say that Dave will come once Joe gets off work, repeating Joe's name in the second sentence would make it clearer. – supercat Mar 15 '17 at 15:26
-2

Is that it?

Native English speaking children all eventually discover the game of asking everybody to "Spell it!" is quite fun.

Consider two people have a dispute:

No it's not.

Yes it is.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It's It! It can do even more than lame old superman!

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