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Could you please remind me what term linguists and the grammar people use to call it when it's used as a subject pronoun, but the funky thing is that it doesn't really refer back to anything in particular like he, she or we usually do which do refer back to a person or an animal that they stand for.

In grammar-speak, when it is used like that they say that it has no antecedent. I think I knew the term, but I unfortunately forgot it. I did a Google search, but the only thing I could find was empty subject. But the truth is that I don't think that's what they actually use in linguistics. Would you please refresh my memory?

Examples:

  1. It's quite cold today outside. So, I don't really wanna go out.
  2. Did I solve that math problem? Yes. Actually, it was very easy to get it cracked. There was really nothing to it!
  3. Don't mention it! It's nothing. I really like to help people who are in need.
  • You might want to use longer examples there. It in your second example could be a dummy but is probably referential. – Araucaria Apr 24 '15 at 13:31
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  1. It's cold today.
  2. It's easy to do.
  3. It's nothing.

For your example #1: It's cold today.

The term I use for that "it" (in #1) is dummy pronoun, and it is a dummy pronoun that realizes subject function.

Evidence that shows "it" to be a subject is: "Has it been cold today?" (subject-auxiliary inversion). The "it" underwent inversion with the auxiliary verb, and so, it probably is the subject.

Evidence that shows "it" to be a pronoun: "It is cold today, isn't it?" (interrogative tag question). Only pronouns can be subjects of the tag question.


As for your other examples (#2 and #3), er, they might be regular pronouns (that is, they are not dummies). You might want to surround them with a context, and then, you might see that the "it" actually does have an antecedent.

  • Is the first it in the new example 2 not a dummy? – Araucaria May 1 '15 at 14:02
  • @Araucaria The one in the current #2 example seems to have the math problem as its antecedent; and so, it seems to be a real pronoun, not a dummy pronoun. – F.E. May 1 '15 at 17:55
  • Hmm,are you sure old bean? I think the second's a real one, but the first's a dummy from an extra position? What d 'you think? – Araucaria May 1 '15 at 22:52
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    @Araucaria Well, when I was first reading "Actually, it was very easy to get it cracked", I assumed that the 2nd "it" was an ESL error; for the natural, expected (imo) version would have been "Actually, it was very easy to get cracked". But, now, looking at it as an extraposition construction, yes, as a standalone sentence, it would seem to be an extraposition with a dummy "it": "Actually, it was very easy to get it cracked" with non-extraposed: "Actually, to get it cracked was very easy." But in the OP's context, I was automatically linking the first "it" to the previous math problem. – F.E. May 1 '15 at 23:15
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    @Araucaria When I was reading it, I was interpreting it ("Actually, it was very easy to get it cracked") as meaning "Actually, it was very easy to crack (it)". Yup. That's my story now. And I'm sticking to it. :D – F.E. May 2 '15 at 6:54
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These are known as "dummy subjects":

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.

(source: Cambridge Dictionaries Online)

See also the Wikipedia entry for "Dummy Pronouns".

  • You can, as the wiki points out, also call them 'pleonastic pronouns'. You know, in case 'dummy pronoun' doesn't sound scholarly enough. – MrTheWalrus Apr 23 '15 at 18:12
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    Hmmm ... How do you know that it in the second and third examples are dummies and not just referential? It seem hard to see how it in the third example could be e dummy here, imo. – Araucaria Apr 24 '15 at 13:29
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    So he chose bad examples..... :-) – Hellion Apr 27 '15 at 2:09

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