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I have the following quote from The Theory of the Leisure Class, published in 1899:

The close-cropped lawn is beautiful in the eyes of a people whose inherited bent it is to readily find pleasure in contemplating a well-preserved pasture or grazing land.

Shouldn't the it not be present in the expression above? My grammar is quite weak so I cannot argue one way or the other on a technical basis, but I feel that the phrase sounds more natural without the it.

Anyone willing to enlighten me here?

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  • to me, even stranger thing is ...a people!
    – Maulik V
    May 30, 2015 at 4:34
  • Oh right, I didn't consider that one.
    – Junoh Lee
    May 30, 2015 at 4:35
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    Not strange to me at all (either example), just a bit formal/old fashioned. With "a people", the writer is referring to cultural groups, not individuals. For instance, the English would be a people, as would the Japanese, &c.
    – jamesqf
    May 30, 2015 at 5:06
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    There is nothing wrong with the it, nor with a people, but this style would be rather formal today.
    – choster
    May 30, 2015 at 5:15
  • A people is not strange to me either; however, when I read the sentence, I had to pause between beautiful and in, and it was as if there was for between the two words. May 30, 2015 at 5:16

3 Answers 3

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  1. The close-cropped lawn is beautiful in the eyes of a people whose inherited bent it is to readily find pleasure in contemplating a well-preserved pasture or grazing land.

In the Original Poster's sentence, the words it is are part of a relative clause. It will be easier to understand why we need this it if we look at the relative clause alone. We can also make the clause a bit simpler, so it's easy to understand.

The relative cause is modifying the noun phrase a people:

  • a people [ whose inherited bent it is to readily find pleasure in contemplating a well-preserved pasture or grazing land ].

For the Original poster's question, the adjectives or adverbs in this sentence aren't important. We don't need the 'or grazing land' bit either. So we can write the clause like this:

  • a people [ whose bent it is to find pleasure in contemplating a pasture ].

Now an inherited bent is a trait or habit or custom that we inherited. Let's replace the word bent so that we can concentrate on the grammar:

  • a people [ whose custom it is to find pleasure in contemplating a pasture ].

The noun phrase a people is the phrase being modified. This means that it is the ANTECEDENT for the relative word. So in the noun phrase whose custom, the word whose means a people's.

When we have a relative clause, the wh- word moves to the front of the clause. This means there is a hole in this clause where the wh- phrase used to be. When we read the clause - or hear it - our brains interpret this hole or "gap" as having the same meaning as the wh- phrase. If we show where the hole in our clause is, it looks like this:

  • whose custom [ it is ____ to find pleasure in contemplating a pasture ]

So that gap there means "whose custom". The word whose is a possessive pronoun. It means something like "their". So, we translate the relative clause like this:

  • it is [ their custom ] to find pleasure in contemplating a pasture.

If we rewrite the clause like a sentence it looks like this:

  • It is their custom to find pleasure in contemplating a pasture.

To make this sentence really easy to think about let's change the phrase to find pleasure in contemplating a pasture. In this sentence it means something like to enjoy looking at fields. This gives us:

  1. It's their custom to enjoy looking at fields.

This is quite similar to a sentence like:

  1. It was their idea to go to the cinema.

Both of these sentences have an infinitival clause beginning with the word "to". They also both begin with the word it. There is a special reason for this. In English, we don't like to start sentences with long infinitive clauses. Sentences which use long infinitive clauses as Subjects can be a little more difficult to understand. Here are two different versions of sentences (2) and (3) which use infinitive clauses as Subjects:

  • [To enjoy looking at fields] is their custom.
  • [To go to the cinema] was their idea.

When we don't want to use an infinitival clause as a Subject, we can use a special type of construction which uses an EXTRAPOSED SUBJECT. We replace the Subject with the word it, and we move the infinitival clause to the end of the sentence. The word it has no meaning. It is a Subject with no meaning. We call it a "dummy" Subject.

  • It is their custom [to enjoy looking at fields].

When we hear sentences like this, we understand the sentence as if the subject was to enjoy looking at fields.

The Original Poster's sentence

We can understand the Original Poster's sentence like this:

The close-cropped lawn is beautiful in the eyes of a people whose inherited bent it is [their inherited bent] to readily find pleasure in contemplating a well-preserved pasture or grazing land.

The word it has no meaning. However, it is important because it tells us to understand the infinitive clause "to readily find pleasure ..." as the subject of the verb BE. It tells us to interpret the clause as:

  • [To readily find pleasure in contemplating a well-preserved pasture or grazing land] is their inherited bent.

If we did not use a dummy subject here then the full sentence would be very difficult to understand. It would look like this:

The close-cropped lawn is beautiful in the eyes of a people whose inherited bent to readily find pleasure in contemplating a well-preserved pasture or grazing land is.

What a rubbish sentence that would be!

Of course, there is another sentence we could use as the basis for the relative clause:

  • Their inherited bent is to readily find pleasure in contemplating a well-preserved pasture or grazing land.

Here the understood Subject is not the infinitival clause but their inherited bent. If we use this structure it implies that a) we have already talked about their inherited bent, or b) everybody has an inherited bent. This is not the case in the Original Poster's example. If we did use this as the basis for the relative clause the sentence would look like this:

  • The close-cropped lawn is beautiful in the eyes of a people whose inherited bent is to readily find pleasure in contemplating a well-preserved pasture or grazing land.

This sentence looks very similar to the Original Poster's example, but the structure is actually very different. The effect is quite different too.

Hope this is helpful!

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The sentence seems perfectly acceptable to me. I suppose it was written that way for reasons of style or perhaps emphasis. This sentence structure could certainly still be used today, so it has not changed over time nor is it incorrect.

You can, however, leave out the it and still have a perfectly correct sentence.

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This particular construction is grammatically correct, but its use has been declining for the past two centuries. Here's an ngram of "whose pleasure it is to"enter image description here

which would be used in the phrase "whose pleasure it is to serve you" (ngram only allows 5 words in a phrase).

https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=whose+pleasure+it+is+to&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cwhose%20pleasure%20it%20is%20to%3B%2Cc0

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    If you choose the phrase whose goal it is to, you might reach the opposite conclusion about the trend for this construction. May 31, 2015 at 1:07

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