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He said that after murdering the magistrate, the Mafia looked for more targets. And it plotted to blow up the magnificent, ancient tower in Pisa. The Mafiosi were aiming to strike a major psychological blow at the height of their war with the state.

. . .

On the other hand, at about the same time as the alleged plot in Pisa, the Mafia did bomb the famous Uffizi art gallery in Florence. It was clearly in the mood to strike at the kind of historic monuments that are the pride of Italy.

–– BBC Learning English

Does it refer to previous act - the Mafia bombed the famous Uffizi art gallery in Florence, or is it dummy-it for to-infinitve phrase - to strike at the kind of historic monuments that are the pride of Italy?

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    Though it might be possible that we can interpret this "it" either way, I believe that any analysis that rules out the possibility of "it" referring to Mafia is wrong. Macmillan (BrE) clearly states that Mafia "can be followed by a singular or plural verb". Google Ngram and a quick googling also clearly show the favor toward the use of the Mafia is, both in eng_us and eng_gb corpuses. Commented Feb 1, 2014 at 0:35
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    I think that in context, JMB's answer is clearly the correct one.
    – user230
    Commented Feb 1, 2014 at 1:59
  • The way I mentally parsed OP was that the original author dropped semantic info as follows: "It was clearly in the mood (of the Mafia) to strike at the kind of historic monuments that are the pride of Italy." I think if one parses the sentence that way, then I'm not sure "Mafia" can be the antecedent of "It". (@snailplane) Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 15:11
  • What would "it" refer to in the following: It is clearly in the mood (of this site) to write thank-you acknowledgements at the bottom of question-posts (rather than at the top). Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 15:15

3 Answers 3

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I think "it" refers to the Mafia; describing its desire to do damage to Italy's pride by attacking historic monuments.

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In my view the use of "it" is in a way that the reader stumbles and really asks what does "it" refer to and when the reader stumbles in his/her reading then another formulation would be preferable. I would tend to say that "it" is the precursory subject to the main subject "to strike". When you refer "it" to the previous sentence than "it" would stand for "this criminal act", but that is not explicitly said in the previous sentence. And if "it" would refer to "Mafia" the normal pronoun would be "they" as "Mafia" is a group of persons.

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  • Just to note regarding last sentence, collective nouns can be used in both singular and plural. See Plural Noun Forms at http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu @DamkerngT Commented Feb 14, 2014 at 6:15
  • Note that in the first paragraph of the quoted passage, the Mafia is referred to with it: "And it plotted to blow up the magnificent, ancient tower in Pisa." They is used to refer to the members of the Mafi, the Mafiosi. Commented Feb 16, 2014 at 21:09
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The "Anticipatory It"

This is called an "anticipatory it". (Submitted after additional research.) The word "it" stands for the subject which is moved after the predicate. That means your original 2nd choice was correct (although I question your choice of calling it a "dummy it"; see below).

ORIGINAL SENTENCE: It was clearly in the mood to strike at the kind of historic monuments that are the pride of Italy.

Rearranged:

REARRANGED TO REMOVE ANTICIPATORY "IT": To strike at the kind of historic monuments that are the pride of Italy was clearly in the mood.

The then subject is the phrase To strike at the kind of historic monuments that are the pride of Italy.

Dummy It? The question is whether one would consider this a "dummy it". I have not found a definitive expert's opinion, but I think not since it's functionally acting as a substitute for an actual subject. Compare with "It is raining." In this latter case, the "dummy it" is a placeholder that preserves the need for a subject only because English grammar mandates such. But other than that, the "dummy it" refers to nothing, has no meaning whatsoever, and cannot be replaced with anything.

References:
- http://www1.icsi.berkeley.edu/~kay/bcg/extrap.html
- http://www.englishforums.com/English/LexicalBundlesStartingAnticipatory-It/bbghph/post.htm
- "It must have been a powerful wizard to ... " -- is "it" a pronoun or a dummy?
- http://www.ucl.ac.uk/internet-grammar/minor/dummy.htm
- http://www.englishforums.com/English/WhatPartSpeechSentences/bbwpvl/post.htm

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  • Your sentence, "to strike at the kind of historic monuments that are the pride of Italy was clearly in the mood", doesn't make any sense to me. How can the notion of striking at something be in any kind of mood?
    – user230
    Commented Feb 1, 2014 at 1:07
  • It's not my sentence. I just did a proper grammatical transformation. I think the problem is that somewhere in the semantics, style, or word-choice by the original author was not the best. Commented Feb 1, 2014 at 1:35
  • And I might add, I think the original sentence has the exact same problem of sense/semantics. It's only an illusion due to the "anticipatory it" that the original sentence seems to make more sense. In a similar example (not exactly the same), "It is raining." has no more sense then "Is raining." One may ask of the latter, "Huh? What is raining?" One doesn't ask that of the former only because of the "dummy it". Commented Feb 1, 2014 at 2:32
  • The construction you are talking about is what grammarians call a cleft sentence. This construction requires the predicate of the underlying proposition to be expressed as a relative clause: an underlying "SUBJ-VERB-COMPL" is rewritten as "It BE SUBJ who/that VERB-COMPL". OP's sentence has no relative clause and does not qualify. Commented Feb 16, 2014 at 21:14
  • @StoneyB I'm not sure what you mean. The original sentence is not a cleft sentence and I never suggested that it was. Commented Feb 19, 2014 at 11:04

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