What is (it) meant by saying "It's all Greek to me"?

Why is (it) necessary to behave well?

I am not able to decide whether in both sentences we must use "it" as the subject. May be it is a trivial question but I have found both alternatives on the Internet.

  • 2
    Irrelevant to the question you're asking, but possibly useful for someone learning English: while "It's all Greek to me" is a metaphor commonly used to mean "I don't understand it", "It's all Greece to me" is likely to earn you strange looks from a native speaker. You'd probably be understood, but it's not normal usage. – Toby Y. Aug 5 '15 at 13:21
  • Yes, you are right. I made a mistake in writing an idiom. I have just corrected it. – bart-leby Aug 5 '15 at 13:36

No, I think it's a good question. It is required in the second question, and incorrect in the first.

I find that the easiest way to understand how English questions are formed is to make declarative statements from them, and note how the sentence changes as a result. Let's take your examples one by one.

What is meant by "It is all Greek to me"?

This would be the most standard way to phrase the question. To make it into a statement, logically we must first decide what the answer is. Let's call the answer A. Then the declarative version would be

A is meant by "It is all Greek to me."

"It" is not required, because the sentence already has a subject, namely A.

(Incidentally, this sentence is in the passive voice. Putting it in the active voice results in the simpler "It is all Greek to me" means A. So changing active to passive changes which thing acts as the subject. However, the passive voice really is the best way to phrase the original question. "It is all Greek to me" means what? is at best an informal phrasing.)

Why is it necessary to behave well?

Again, this would be the standard phrasing. Unlike the previous example, we can make a simpler question by simply eliminating the word "why":

Is it necessary to behave well?

From here, the declarative version is easy—just put the subject and verb in the opposite order, which were reversed to form the question. Notice that, also unlike the previous example, we can do this without deciding what the answer to the original question is.

It is necessary to behave well.

There's no way to write this sentence without "it," because the sentence wouldn't have a subject otherwise.

If you find this to be a good way of understanding the issue, please let me know in a comment. Likewise if you feel confused by it.

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  • Thanks for your clarifying answer. But I have a question. You wrote that in the case of the first question it is not necessary to use "it" because the sentence already has a subject. But only in its declarative form. Where is a subject in its question form? Every sentence must have a subject. Or not? – bart-leby Aug 5 '15 at 13:29
  • Yes, every sentence must have a subject, even interrogatives. What is the subject of the first question. It has to be; there's nothing else it could be. Meant is the main verb in the verb phrase is meant, which is the passive form of mean. The rest is a prepositional phrase. – Jason Melançon Aug 5 '15 at 13:33
  • @bart-leby By contrast, the subject of your second example question is it. – Jason Melançon Aug 5 '15 at 14:20
  • @bart-leby to understand this, I think you need to understand the difference between the question words what and why. What can be (and indeed, usually is) used as a noun. Of course, anything that is a noun can be used as the subject of your sentence, and it is being used as the subject of the first sentence. While why technically can be used as a noun (at least informally), it doesn't take on the form of a noun in an interrogative construction such as that in the second sentence. – Crazy Eyes Aug 5 '15 at 20:46

All English sentences require a subject and a verb, but sometimes the subject is either unknown, or something that is not a definite person/place/thing.

In such cases, it is used. The weather is one example:

It's raining.

This is also a common way to express a general situation, fact, or status that doesn't have anything to do with anyone specific.

It's not possible to go to the park, the road is closed.

However, this is wrong:

What is (it) meant by saying "It's all Greek for me"?

because you already are using the pronoun what. Subject/verb order is usually flipped in interrogative sentences with wh- pronouns.

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