In an earlier question "You're taller than (is/are) described", there came up this issue of whether 'it' could be inserted as follows:

a. You're taller than it is described.

The grammar book that I have (Practical English Usage by Michael Swan) has this similar example:

b. He worries more than it is necessary.

The book says that you have to omit 'it', but Jason Bassford, who answered the question, says that the omission is not obligatory.

Here's an excerpt from PEU:

Than and as as subjects
Than and as can replace subjects in clauses (rather like relative pronouns)

He worries more than is necessary. (NOT ... more than it/what is necessary.)

There were a lot of people at the exhibition -- more than came last year. (NOT ...more than they came last year.)

The train might be late, as happened yesterday. (NOT ...as it happened yesterday.)

Since Jason Bassford was basically saying that the grammar book I frequently use is wrong, I had to do some research and I've found an earlier question (Where is the subject in “[…] weaker than would otherwise have been the case”?).

There, another grammar book 'A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar' (Huddleston and Pullum) has been cited to support the claim that it is obligatory to omit the dummy subject 'it' in examples like:

c. Germany adopted a much weaker currency than it would otherwise have been the case

d. Germany adopted a much weaker currency than it would otherwise have been possible

(I don't have this grammar book, so I have no way of confirming, but I think that this is basically what the book says, which is in line with 'Practical English Usage'.)


I'm sure that the dummy subject 'it' in the above examples can be omitted, but is the omission obligatory in the above examples?

Or is the omission obligatory in some of the above examples but not in others?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – ColleenV
    Feb 26, 2019 at 19:37

3 Answers 3


Ask yourself - if you included the word "it", what would "it" refer to?

The pronoun "it" is used to refer to a thing previously mentioned or easily identified.

If you said:

You're taller than it is described.

What is "it"? There is no tangible "description" to refer to - the sentence only uses the verb "described". Also, there is no specified "height" to refer to - the sentence only uses the comparative term "taller". The only noun in the sentence is the pronoun "you".

If you mean that the person described their own height as being shorter than it was, you could say:

You're taller than you described.

If the description came from elsewhere though, this is not appropriate, and it does not make sense to insert "it" in the sentence because there is nothing else in the sentence for "it" to refer to.

You could say:

This paper says you are 5ft tall. You are taller than it describes.

In this example, "it" refers to the paper, and so is appropriate.

"You're taller than is described" is correct. The sentence does not specify where or how you were described as being shorter than you are and does not need to. So in this example to include "it" would be absolutely incorrect.

Looking at your other example:

He worries more than is necessary.

I have to say I think it is also incorrect. Strictly speaking, you should not include the word "it" because of the rule that I previously stated - that "it" should be easily identifiable. If you have heard it said this way perhaps the person meant to say:

He worries more than it is necessary to do so.

Here, "it" refers to the action or practice of worrying. The inclusion of the verb "to do" gives "it" something to refer to.

So there is no rule about the inclusion of "it" before "is" - each example should be considered on its own merits. The "rule" is that "it" should only be used as a pronoun to refer to something that you have previously mentioned or is easily identified.

  • 1
    Then, none of the four examples (a, b, c, and d) should have "it", right? Thanks for the very insightful answer.
    – listeneva
    Feb 26, 2019 at 14:38
  • @listeneva I don't believe so! Thanks for the compliment.
    – Astralbee
    Feb 26, 2019 at 14:45

This seems to be more a matter of Syntax than Grammar.

Without context, the examples listed aren't grammatically incorrect by themselves. As soon as you do add context however, sentence structure becomes redundant.

As a general rule: In a Comparative sentence using "than", the pronoun it and subsequent verb (ex. "is") are both redundant and should therefore be omitted when they refer to something in the same sentence.

-He worries more than necessary.

-There were a lot of people at the exhibition -- more than last year.

-The train might be late, as yesterday. (Weird syntax but this one could be written: "as it WAS yesterday.")

Finally, the Germany quote definitely must omit the "IT". Weird sentence though.

*Full disclosure, I'm not a linguistic expert, but I'm a decent enough writer who knows there's no absolute standard of grammar, especially today. It varies with country, regional dialect, writing medium and over Time with every revised edition. You just have to try to be consistent with your form and writing environment.

  • I agree. this is a great answer. however, you might want to add blockquotes to your examples with the - preceding them. you add blockquotes by adding a > before a senctence. to exit a blockquote, you hit enter (or return, depending on your keyboard) twice >it looks like this Feb 26, 2019 at 20:13
  • Thanks for your answer. But I don't understand what you mean in your second paragraph. All the examples (a, b, c and d) here are presented without context (if by context you mean 'additional sentences'), and you haven't shown how 'additional context' can make them ungrammatical.
    – listeneva
    Feb 27, 2019 at 0:43
  • Also, your 'general rule' is applicable to cases like The price is higher in this country than it is in the States, because it is can be omitted in The price is higher in this country than in the States, but in this case, you cannot omit the subject 'it' only and say *The price is higher in this country than is in the States. Therefore, I'm afraid your 'general rule' cannot distinguish the four examples (a, b, c and d) from the 'price' example.
    – listeneva
    Feb 27, 2019 at 3:23

First of all, I should make it clear that I believe it sounds better in all of the example sentence to omit the it. Whether or not it's technically grammatical to leave it in, it's probably preferable to omit it.

However, I don't believe that it's required to omit the it in sentences a or b—unlike sentences c and d, which I do believe must omit the it.

I should also mention that in the quoted reference of Practical English Usage by Michael Swan, Swan does not actually claim that the it must be omitted in any particular sentence; he simply claims that it can be omitted. Unless there is some additional text that has not been quoted, if I say that the it can remain, and can argue for it effectively, that's not necessarily going against the grammar book or saying that it's incorrect.

The way it's written may simply be meant as a way of emphasizing contrast rather than prohibiting grammar:

Emotions can be used in place of calmer statements.
That's fantastic! NOT I feel positive about it.

Here, neither sentence is ungrammatical. It's simply meant that the same thing can be expressed differently. If I'm being fair, I grant this isn't likely. But the point is that he's not being explicit about what he means by the styling—we're making an assumption. On the other hand, people do make mistakes at times.

(I will note, however, that in his second example sentence, which uses they, that they cannot be used as a dummy subject. Only it and there can be used as dummy subjects. I believe it's the use of the dummy subject that allows for the presence of it in the first sentence. But, in the second sentence, I think it actually is the case that they must be omitted.)

As for the dummy subject, consider the following two sentences:

It is raining.
It is nice in Florida this time of year.

In neither of these sentences does it refer to anything specific, as would a normal pronoun—or would it in more conventional syntax. The reason it exists is because it is acting as a kind of generic grammatical placeholder rather than as a reference to something specific.

From Cambridge Dictionary:

English clauses which are not imperatives must have a subject. Sometimes we need to use a ‘dummy’ or ‘empty’ or ‘artificial’ subject when there is no subject attached to the verb, and where the real subject is somewhere else in the clause. It and there are the two dummy subjects used in English:

      It’s always interesting to find out about your family history.

            [real subject]
      To find out about your family history is always interesting. (The real subject – the thing that is interesting – is ‘to find out about your family history’.)

      There are five Dutch people in our village. (The real subject is the Dutch people – they are in the village.)

We often use it as a dummy subject with adjectives and their complements:

      It’s important to wear a helmet whenever you do any dangerous sport.

            [real subject]
      Wearing a helmet when you do any dangerous sport
      is important.

      Not: Is important to wear a helmet … (The real subject is ‘wearing a helmet when you do any dangerous sport’ – that is what is important.)

      It’s useful to write down your passport number somewhere, in case you lose it.

The Cambridge Dictionary entry discusses there in more detail too, but it's not as specifically relevant.

This sentence is grammatical:

You're taller than described.

This also happens to be what I think is the most natural version of the sentence, and what most people would use.

But let's look at a rephrased version of sentence a:

It is described that you are tall.

This makes use of the dummy subject it. It is a pronoun that doesn't refer to anything specific.

This serves the same function as:

It is said that a rolling stone gathers no moss.

The fact that we don't know anything specific about the who or when or how in relation to the saying doesn't matter. It's still a valid sentence. Similarly, so is the it is described sentence—even though we also don't know anything about the who or when or how in relation to the description.

If we can use that sentence, where the use of it makes sense, then it seems to me we should also be able to use the original sentence:

You're taller than it is described.

Additionally, the following would also make sense, if we thought of the sentence as elliptical:

You're taller than it is described [you are].

A similar analysis could be applied to sentence b:

He worries more than necessary.

It is necessary he worry.
He worries more than it is necessary.
He worries more than it is necessary [for him to worry].

While neither a nor b are the most natural sounding of sentences, and I would rephrase them to the simpler versions I provided, I do not believe that either is actually syntactically in error. Nor do I believe that Swan specifically says that it must be omitted, merely that it can be omitted. (And in my opinion probably should be omitted in most cases.)

As for sentences c and d, I'm not nearly as convinced that they can ever be grammatical. Or that, if they can, the amount of editing to make them so would be worth it.

The construction of sentences c and d is different.

With sentences a and b, I can make positive use of a dummy it:

It is described that you are tall.
It is necessary he worry.

But I can't think of a way of doing the same with c or d:

It would otherwise have been the case.
It would otherwise have been possible.

As purely standalone sentences, the would otherwise doesn't attach to anything. It's not an affirmative statement about an existing situation or condition.

Both of these make sense:

It is the case that two plus two is four.
It is possible that it will rain tomorrow.

In those, the meaning is clear within each sentence itself.

The only way that the other sentences could possibly make sense would be if they came within a broader context:

✔ Because she ate within the last week, it wasn't the case that she starved to death. It would otherwise have been the case.

Now, the second sentence makes sense. But only because it's been given proper context.

So, considering everything so far, we could provide additional context to sentence c and state a different initial form:

✔ Because Germany had a weak leader, it wasn't the case that it adopted a strong currency. It would otherwise have been the case.

But note the lengths I've had to go to in order to get it to this initial point—and it only works because I've added another sentence with some additional context and emphasis.

I can think of no way that I can easily—or usefully—make this correct:

✘ Germany adopted a much weaker currency than it would otherwise have been the case.

Possibly I could come up with a two-sentence version that would allow for it to be grammatical with the use of it. But in doing so it would become at least twice as long—and most likely add extraneous information.

Even if it were possible (and I can't think of a method at the moment), it's far more simplistic and succinct to just drop the it in this case.

  • Thanks for the detailed answer. I can see where you're coming from. That said, I don't quite understand why you would say "Swan does not actually claim that the it must be omitted in any particular sentence; he simply claims that it can be omitted." As far as I know, "NOT" alone means "you cannot use this form; it's ungrammatical", and using 'strikethrough' alone means the same. And Swan has used both for ...more than it/what is necessary, just as the Cambridge Dictionary example you've cited has for Is important to wear a helmet …, which is ungrammatical.
    – listeneva
    Feb 28, 2019 at 12:06
  • Also, in your affirmative versions of examples a. and b. (✔ It is described that you are tall. ✔ It is necessary he worry.), you have real subjects at the end, so that the generic grammatical placeholder 'it' isn't left hanging. But in the case of examples c. and d., you've admitted that you can't think of a way of adding real subjects, unless in separate sentences. So I guess it's fair to say 'it' can only be added when you've added a read subject. And the fact of the matter is, examples a. and b. as they are don't have real subjects any more than examples c. and d. as they are do.
    – listeneva
    Feb 28, 2019 at 12:26
  • @listeneva I've updated my answer to give a concrete example of how Swan might have used the formatting in the book to mean something different. You're assuming that his use of NOT and the strikeout means "this is not grammatical," but that's only one interpretation. I'm also not sure how to take your second comment. It's raining has no "real subject at the end," yet it's a perfectly acceptable use of null subject. And if you look at the link I used, there is what you call a "real subject at the end," yet it is also an example of the null subject. So, I'm not sure how that applies. Feb 28, 2019 at 13:47
  • @listeneva As for my Cambridge Dictionary example, it, too, doesn't say that what's stricken out was stricken out because it was ungrammatical. (Although it is.) It may have been stricken out to indicate it is not actually what is important, since that's what follows in explanatory parentheses. Feb 28, 2019 at 13:58
  • Thanks for the NOT/strikeout example in Swan. I get that. As for the missing 'real subject' thing, I don't think that the fact that It's raining has no real subject is neither here nor there, because you don't need any real subject after It's raining; you only need one after the particular kind of "it" as shown in the Cambridge link.
    – listeneva
    Feb 28, 2019 at 14:12

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