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Asleep was the way Harry liked the Dursleys best; it wasn't as though they were ever any help to him awake.

Harry potter and the Goblet of Fire

What does it refer to here and what's the meaning of the whole sentence?

(For those who don't know, Harry and the dursleys hate each other very much.)

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"It" is an "empty" or "dummy" subject in this case. The pronoun has no referent; it merely satisfies the grammatical function of supplying a subject for the clause. So the meaning is

Harry was happiest when the Dursleys were asleep because they were never any help when awake.

  • thanks a lot I know what the sentence means now, but it's still hard for me to understand the construnction of this sentence. What you suggested, "they were never any help when (harry was?) awake." makes perfect sense, but how "it wasn't as though..." works? – dbwlsld Jan 29 '18 at 4:01
  • Does as though here function like like? Then I understand "it was like they were never any help." but I dont get the original sentence... sorry for my poor explanation. Could you explain this sentence more specifically? – dbwlsld Jan 29 '18 at 4:05
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    "Harry was happiest when the Dursleys were asleep because they were never any help when they, the Dursleys, were awake" is the meaning. The subject is plural so it cannot be referring to Harry. – Jeff Morrow Jan 29 '18 at 4:20
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    I can see why you find the construction using "as though" a bit odd because it is not current among young Americans. In modern American colloquial English, the meaning is "it wasn't like they were any help when they were awake." But in my parents' day, that kind use of "like" was considered quite ungrammatical. I can't remember how many times as a child I was told not to use "like" as a conjunction. The Potter book is following what was considered the only proper grammar 60 years ago in the U.S. (and still may be considered the only proper grammar in the U.K.) – Jeff Morrow Jan 29 '18 at 4:36
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    Because they never were any help, you would say "because they were never any help." Because it is false, a statement contrary to fact, that they were ever of help, it becomes "as though." It is a rather complex double negative. But you have it. – Jeff Morrow Jan 29 '18 at 15:27
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Jeff Morrow has already answered the question about "it". For another high-level rewriting of the sentence that might be helpful:

"Asleep was the way Harry liked the Dursleys best; if you thought Harry ever got any benefit from the Dursleys when they were awake, you'd be wrong."

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