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How can I tell whether an "it" is a dummy "it", or what it might be referring to?

For example, in the following paragraph:

Lately, for the last three years, it feels like it’s not about me anymore, that there’s a well-marked path that I’m following, and when I follow it I’m swimming with the current. (Kathy Holwadel)

Does the "it" in this sentence indicate something in particular or is it a "dummy it" for ‘not about me anymore’? (that clause might be the semantic subject, but this clause seems more like a subordinate to say the reason.)

How would I be able to tell whether an it in a particular sentence refers to a dummy it or a particular object?

  • 4
    You've asked a lot of questions over the past few weeks about whether "it" in specific paragraphs are a "dummy it" or a particular thing referred to in the sentence. In order to help, I've altered the question to ask for a more generic "How would I go about telling for myself if..." type question, which might help you not only in this instance, but also in future. I hope the change will encourage answers that are less specific to this particular paragraph, and more helpful both to you, and also to future learners who find this question as well :) – Matt Aug 13 '13 at 23:58
  • Generally, the test is whether there's something for the "it" to refer to. Looking just at the paragraph you've shown, without context, we can't tell. Was something mentioned earlier for the "it" to refer to? – David Schwartz Aug 14 '13 at 4:36
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There's no general rule, you have to analyze the sentence for meaning.

For example, given the sentence fragment “it feels like it’s not about me anymore”, each of the two occurrences of it can either have antecedents or by dummy pronouns.

My husband is paying less and less attention to me. Lately, when we talk, it₁ feels like it₂'s not about me any more. [1, 2: dummy]

My husband is paying less and less attention to me. Lately, when we have a conversation, it₁ feels like it₂'s not about me any more. [1: “a conversation”; 2: dummy]

I've been trying to write my autobiography, and since I've started on the third chapter, it₁ feels like it₂'s not about me any more. [1, 2: “my autobiography”]

I'm having trouble coming up with a plausible sentence in which the first it is a dummy pronoun but the second has an antecedent, but I wouldn't swear it's impossible, just awkward.

Keep in mind that these interpretations aren't set in stone: the semantic difference between “the feeling I get from a certain thing is that this thing isn't about me”, “the feeling I get from a certain thing is that the situation isn't about me”, “the feeling I get from the situation is that a certain thing isn't about me”, and “the feeling I get from the situation is that this situation isn't about me” can be tenuous.

In the text you quote from, there is nothing that could be the antecedent of it. Therefore it is a dummy pronoun in both instances, referring to the author's life in general, and more specifically to the aspects that she's been discussing in the text leading to that sentence. If there was an antecedent, it would refer to specific aspects of her life that were previously mentioned. It wouldn't make much of a difference.

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