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He'd forgotten all about the people in cloaks until he passed a group of them next to the baker's. He eyed them angrily as he passed. He didn't know why, but they made him uneasy. This bunch were whispering excitedly, too, and he couldn't see a single collecting tin. It was on his way back past them, clutching a large doughnut in a bag, that he caught a few words of what they were saying. (Harry Potter)

It seems ‘it’ and ‘that’ has no relationship of an expletive and its real subject. So the sentence looks clumsy to me. What do I have to consider not to?

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  • BTW, are you sure 'expletive' is the word you meant to use? – WendiKidd Feb 23 '13 at 3:37
  • @WendiKidd, yes, someone say it as a dummy it, i've heard. And as for your reply, now i can understand that it's kind of emphatic expression. Thank you. – Listenever Feb 23 '13 at 3:50
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    Listenever: Ah, I see! Just searched under that context and found the definition. I learned something new too, I'd only known 'expletive' to refer to swear words before. Glad my answer could help, and thanks for teaching me something as well! – WendiKidd Feb 23 '13 at 3:51
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In this case, "it was" is used to mean "The event about to be mentioned occurred when..." The sentence could be rephrased as follows:

While on his way back past them, clutching a large doughnut in a bag, he caught a few words of what they were saying.

Another common example that uses "it was" in this manner is:

It was a dark and stormy night.

To expand upon that sentence using both "it" and "that" as you mentioned, one could write:

It was on a dark and stormy night that I first saw the black cat.

So in general, when saying "It was [x] that he [y]", x refers to the occasion on which the event occurred, and y describes what happened.

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  • When referring to events, should not it be "it was on [X] […]"? – kiamlaluno Feb 23 '13 at 7:40
  • @kiamlaluno Sometimes! In my last example it does say "It was on a dark and stormy night...", but you could also have a sentence that does not require the on, such as "It was last year that I started getting interested in taxidermy." – WendiKidd Feb 23 '13 at 23:32
  • Whoops! I forgot that in American English on is not always obligatory: "She'll call him Monday." – kiamlaluno Feb 24 '13 at 11:29

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