Empty “It” as a Dummy Subject in Grammar (“It’s Raining”)
It can be used as a dummy subject in sentences without a real subject to introduce a situation or a fact, or to refer to time, weather, and distance. When used as such, the pronoun it does not refer to any specific noun and is called the “empty it.”
- It’s raining.
Not “Is raining.”
- It’s midnight already.
- It’s easy to get distracted by social media.
- It is at midnight that magic happens.
The empty it
The pronoun it is used as a dummy subject to speak about situations in general. When used in this way, the word it does not refer to a specific noun but merely introduces the existence of a situation and is called the “empty it.” Use the empty it to speak about weather, time, and distance.
- It is the perfect day for a picnic.
- It’s time to go home.
- It’s raining again.
Clauses in English generally require a subject (unless it is implied, like in imperatives).
- Farley can’t find his hat.
- She has three cats and two dogs.
- The house that Jack built has fallen down.
When a subject isn’t readily available in a sentence, we use a dummy subject like it.
- Incorrect: Is raining.
Correct: It is raining.The empty it is a dummy subject that lets us talk about the weather.
In weather references
The pronoun it helps us talk about the weather and environmental conditions. What we want to state takes the role of complement in the sentence, with it as the dummy subject.
- It’s cold here in summer and colder in winter.
- It’s too noisy in this restaurant.
- It’s getting dark.
- It’s dawn, and I still haven’t slept a wink.
- Is it night already?
- It was dusty and dirty down in the basement.
In references to times, dates, and distances
Just like in references to weather, it is used as a dummy subject in references to times, dates, and distances.
- It’s nine o’clock in the morning.
- Is it six already?
- It’s too early to end the party.
- It’s time to stop dreaming and start doing.
- It has been seven days since you’ve been gone.
- It’s the third of October, 2119, and we are still lost in space.
- It is the year 2513, and I have just turned 531 years old.
- It’s two miles to the next gas station.
To introduce facts and situations
Use it as a dummy subject to introduce a situation or a fact.
- It’s great being out and about again.
- It’s nice here, isn’t it?
- It’s no use worrying about the future until we have a time machine to see how everything turns out.
Like the empty it, the existential there is also used as a dummy subject to say that something exists.
- There is a unicorn in the garden.
- There are only three people in the room.
- There is a future for all of us.
With verbs like look, seem, appear
We sometimes use the dummy it with verbs like look, seem, and appear to soften a statement or gently introduce a fact.
- It looks like somebody has eaten all your birthday cake.
We could also say, “Somebody has eaten all your birthday cake,” and mean the same thing. But we introduce an unpleasant fact gently by saying, “It looks like . . .”
- It seems we have no choice but to work with each other.
- I’m sorry, but it appears your flight has been canceled.
Avoid starting sentences with words like it appears that, it seems that, and it was found that in business and academic writing. Prefer to use a more direct tone.
- Poor: It was found that the bacteria had not survived the radiation.
- Better: We found that the bacteria had not survived the radiation.
or Better: The bacteria had not survived the radiation.
The anticipatory it
The word it is often used as an anticipatory subject, with the real subject to which it refers appearing later in the sentence. This structure is preferred when the subject starts with that, to + verb, or an -ing form (i.e., when the subject is a that clause, an infinitive phrase, or a gerund phrase).
- It is impossible to understand what he says.
Can be rewritten as “To understand what he says is impossible,” but that would sound unusually formal.
- It’s interesting that you think the Earth is flat.
Where “it” refers to a subject that appears later: “that you think the Earth is flat.”
- It’s strange finding this old cabin in the woods.
Where it is the anticipatory subject, referring to “finding this old cabin in the woods.”
Some grammarians consider the anticipatory it to be a dummy subject, while others say it not truly a dummy since it refers to a specific person, thing, or idea that appears later in the sentence, unlike the empty it. Compare “It is raining,” where there is no subject at all other than the dummy it, with “It is a shame that it is raining,” which can be rewritten as “That it is raining is a shame.”
In cleft sentences
In a cleft sentence, the pronoun it helps place focus on a particular element of the sentence. A cleft sentence can be rewritten as a simple sentence, but the cleft structure helps emphasize a specific phrase.
- It was in December that the wolves came.
Focus on “in December.” Can also be written as “The wolves came in December,” but then you’re no longer emphasizing when the wolves came.
- It is for you that I wrote this song.
- It was a nurse who found the cure.
Examples from literature
Here are some examples from literature of the dummy it being used to speak about a situation or a fact, or to refer to time and weather.
It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.— Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (1861)
It is curious how people take it for granted that they have a right to preach at you and pray over you as soon as your income falls below a certain level.— George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933)
It is awful to want to go away and to want to go nowhere.— Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (1982)
It was never the right time or it was always the right time, depending on how you looked at it.— Ann Patchett, Bel Canto (2001)
It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.— Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (2011)
Use it as a dummy subject (the empty it) to speak of situations in general (It looks like the shops are closed) and in references to time, weather, and distance (It’s getting late; It’s hot today). The dummy it can also be used as an anticipatory subject to refer to the real subject, which appears later in the sentence (It’s strange that you don’t like ice-cream). Finally, the dummy it appears in cleft sentences, where it helps place focus on a particular element (It was in May that we moved to Greenland).