Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Read all about it

A look at the various uses of the pronoun it,
introductory (preparatory) it and there,
and it-clefts.



It as a personal pronoun

The basic use of it is as a 3rd person singular personal pronoun, like he / him, she / her, referring to something already mentioned, or which we are just about to mention, or is obvious from the context. This something is known as its antecedent. There is only one form of it for both subject and object.
We use it:
  • to talk about an animal, a thing
    - Look at that squirrel; isn't it sweet? (subj)
    - Where's the sugar? - I put it in that cupboard. (obj)
    - ít's broken down again. This machine is impossible. (subj)
    - I thought they had repaired it last week. (obj)
  • to talk about a baby (UK) - Americans don't like this, see 'it's a boy' below)
    - Isn't it a lovely baby? (subj)
    - Marta's going to have a baby. - When is she having it? (obj)
  • to talk about an identified situation or fact
    - He's late again. It's very annoying when he does that. (subj)
    - I've done it again! I've lost my glasses. (obj)

Identifying people

We use it rather than he, she etc when identifying people
  • Who's that man over there? - It's Dave Brown; he's our instructor.
  • Is that Pete Franshaw? - No, it isn't. It's his brother, Paul.
  • It's Paul who got married last week, isn't it? - No, it was Pete.
  • (On the phone) Hello, Darling, it's Pete here.

It as an 'empty' subject to refer to the time, the weather, distance and the current situation.

We often use it to talk about the time the weather and distance. Here the antecedent (the time, the weather etc) is taken as understood.

Exercise 1. Enter suitable words into the gaps

1. Do we have much further to go - No, it's only a kilometre so.
2. Look outside! It have been snowing all night. It's really thick.
3. It's Thursday today, so the shops will be staying late.
4. He remembered just in time that it was their fifth wedding .
5. Excuse me, do you have the ? - Yes, it's half past four.
6. You can just see the beach from here. It's about ten minutes away on .
7. The castle? It's about a mile here, straight up that hill.
8. Isn't it warm for this of year? - Yes, isn't it just?
9. Are you just having lunch now? But it's the of the afternoon!
10. Hello, Mandy. It's since I saw you last. It must be at least a year.
11. Drive carefully, it's very icy on the after the big freeze last night.
12. This is Radio Zero. It's coming up for nine o'clock, and the news.
We also use it like this to talk about the current situation.
  • It isn't it great that we've got a long weekend.
  • It's a shame you can't come to the party.
  • It's a bit dark in here, shall I put on the lights?

It as introductory / preparatory subject

When a noun clause is the subject, we often prefer not to put this at the beginning. This is especially true when we want to emphasise an adjective. Noun clauses include:
  • to-infinitive clauses
    It's important to hear all sides of the argument.
  • that-clauses
    It's likely that he'll be late.
  • wh-clauses
    It annoys me when he behaves like that.
  • -ing clauses
    It's pointless denying it. I saw you do it!
Notice how introductory it is used in those sentences. The real subject is underlined.

Exercise 2 - Rewrite these sentences so that they start with It ... as in the examples above. Use contractions where possible.

1. To tell me so quickly was good of you. .
2. To put me up for the night is very kind of her. .
3. To visit New York has always been my dream. .
4. To become a top athlete was clearly her destiny. .
5. That our team will lose again is only too likely. .
6. That Mike will get the job is a foregone conclusion. .
7. That you do so little work worries me. .
8. What you think is neither here nor there. .
9. When you lose your wallet is always really annoying. .
10. How much money I manage to spend always amazes me. .
11. Working with you has been really great.
12. Trying to wriggle your way out of it is no use. .

Seem, appear, turn out

We often use a preparatory it structure with these verbs. Notice that we use normal verb forms with preparatory it, but special structures in the alternative versions:
  • I appeared to have made a mistake.
    OR It appeared that I had made a mistake.
  • We seem to have been wrong about him.
    OR It seems that we were wrong about him.
  • He turns out not to be Nigerian at all; he's from Ghana.
    OR It turns out that he's not Nigerian at all; he's from Ghana.

It + verb + if / as if / as though

We sometimes use preparatory it with if / as if / as though
  • It looks as if we're going to have to do something about Mike.
  • I mean, it's not as if he hasn't been warned about his behaviour before.
  • And it would be a shame if we had to do anthing too drastic.
  • But it seems as though there may be no alternative.

It takes + time

We can use the verb take to say how much time something needs. We can do this in several ways:
  • The person is the subject
    I took an hour to get dinner ready yesterday.
  • The object of the activity is the subject
    Dinner took me an hour to get ready yesterday.
  • The activity is the subject
    Getting dinner ready took me an hour yesterday.
  • Or we can use preparatory it as subject
    It took me an hour to get dinner ready yesterday
Source for this section: Practical English Usage, by Michael Swan (Oxford)

There as introductory / preparatory subject

When introducing new information we often use there as a false subject, especially when we are saying that something exists or not. For this reason, this is sometimes called existential there.
  • There's a new film on at the Odeon, do you want to come?
  • Are there any wine glasses? - Yes, there are some in the sideboard.
  • Isn't there any sugar left? - There should be. Try in the cupboard.

Remember that there is also an adverb of place.

Be careful not to use adverbial there like introductory there:
  • I come from Gdansk and my parents still live there.
    NOT there still live my parents.
  • I studied in Kraków, which has one of the oldest universities in Europe.
    NOT there is one of the oldest universities in Europe.
For more on this problem, and lots more on introductory there, see my companion post on 'Confusing words - there' (link below) which has several exercises and includes:
  • The introductory construction there is, there are and why it is so useful
  • There is / are with relative clauses
  • There is / are with participle clauses
  • There is / are with nominalisation
The next exercise is taken from that earlier post.

Exercise 3 - Where possible, rewrite the sentence using there. Otherwise leave the box blank.

  • For this exercise, don't use contractions
  • Remember about tense
  • Remember to use final punctuation
1.A woman is waiting to see you.
2.The new computer is on the desk in the study.
3.Nobody was in the room.
4.Something strange was crawling up his leg.
5.My glasses are in the other room.
6.Nothing was in the room except for a simple bed.
7.Is any information on the sign about opening times?
8.Steve's car is in his garage.
9.A bowl of fruit is on the table.
10.Your supper is on the table.
11.Have any thunderstorms been recently?
12.A lot of people were at the bus stop.

It or there?

Note - Introductory it is always followed by a singular verb. But with introductory there, whether the verb is singular or plural depends on the delayed subject.
  • It was surprising how many people turned up.
  • There is a new kid on the block.
  • There are some kids playing in our garden.

Exercise 4 - Fill the gaps with it, there, it's, there's or there are, as appropriate. Remember to use a capital letter if the gap is at the beginning of the sentence.

1.    used to be a cinema here but    got turned into a bingo hall.
2.    used to be much quieter here.    a lot more cars nowadays.
3.    looks busy, but    no harm in asking if they've got a table free.
4.    no point in crying over spilt milk.    just a waste of time.
5.    a good chance it might rain,    dark clouds on the horizon.
6.    just a shame that you won't be here to see your cousin.
7.    several reasons why    important to look after your health.
8.    no good asking him;    no way he'll know the answer.
9.    not a lot more I can say.    all depends on your point of view.
10.    more things to life than earning lots of money.

Distancing with it and there with passive reporting structures

We sometimes use passive structures to distance the information we are giving, when perhaps we aren't 100% sure, or when we don't want to mention the people involved. These forms are often used in newspapers and more formal writing. There are four main patterns, three of which involve preparatory it or there:
  • 1. It + passive verb + that + clause
  • It is sometimes said that Spanish is the easiest language to learn to speak badly.
  • It has been calculated that there are now more non-native speakers of English, than native speakers.
  • Verbs commonly used like this include:
  • 2. Subject + passive verb + to + infinitive
  • The results are expected to be announced tomorrow
  • The Prime Minister is thought to be considering an early election.
  • Verbs commonly used like this include:
  • believe, expect, report, say, think, understand
  • 3. It + passive verb + to + infinitive
  • It is forbidden to smoke on the premises.
  • It has been proposed to build a new civic centre.
  • Verbs commonly used like this include:
  • 4. There + passive verb + to + infinitive
  • There is said to be a storm on the way.
  • There are thought to be around 300 billion stars in the Milky Way.
  • Note that the verb agrees with the real subject (storm, 300 billion stars).

Passively reporting bats Adapted from Wikipedia

This exercise first appeared in my post on Reported speech, link below.
Photo of Big-eared Townsend bat from Wikipedia

Exercise 5 - Read the text, then fill each gap with one word.

It is said (1)    the only mammal naturally capable of true and sustained flight is the bat. Other mammals said (2)    fly, such as flying squirrels and gliding possums glide rather than fly, and can only glide for short distances.
Bats (3)    thought to represent about 20% of all classified mammal species worldwide and (4)    are calculated to be about 1,240 bat species in the world. There (5)    sometimes thought to have been one single common bat ancestor, from which all bat species have evolved.
It (6)    believed that about 70% of bats are insectivores, with most of the rest thought (7)    be fruit eaters and a very few carnivores. There (8)    thought to be bats in almost every habitat available on Earth, with the exception of the two polar regions. In many places they (9)    considered to play a vital role in pollinating seeds and controlling the numbers of insects pests.
It has (10)    contended that Kitti's hog-nosed bat is the smallest extant species of mammal, although claims have also been made for the Etruscan shrew. (11)    is generally agreed that the largest species of bat is the giant golden-crowned flying fox, which (12)    said to have a wingspan of 1.5 m.

Emphasis in cleft sentences with it.

By using a cleft sentence with preparatory it, we can emphasise a noun, often in contrast with what has just been said:
  • They say you should visit Paris in the spring, but it's in the autumn that I like it best.
The structure is:
It is / was + emphasised noun phrase + who / that / when + rest of the sentence
We often use an it-cleft to correct wrong information, for example. When speaking, we stress the emphasised noun phrase.
  • Jenny has bought a house in London
  • No, it's Sally who has bought a house in London.
  • No, it's in Brighton (that) Jenny has bought a new house.
  • No, it's a flat (that) Jenny bought in London.
  • Jenny went to visit her sister on Wednesday.
  • No, it was Jenny's sister who came to visit Jenny on Wednessday.
  • No, it was her mother (who/that) she went to visit on Wednesday.
  • No, it was Thursday when she went to visit her sister.
Notice the use of pronouns:
  • who or that for people
  • that (NOT which) for things and after prepositional phrases
  • As in defining relative clauses, who and that can be left out when they refer to the object or the object of a preposition.

Exercise 6a - rewrite each sentence to emphasise the relevant noun, starting with It was ... - where possible leave out the pronoun.

EG. Susie married Mike. - Not Mike, but Steve
No, it was Steve Susie married.
1. Mike bought her a ring for her birthday. - Not Mike but Steve.
No,
2. He bought her a ring for her birthday. - For their anniversary.
No,
3. He bought the necklace for Susie. - His daughter.
No,
4. He bought a guitar for Rick. - A drum kit.
No,
We can also emphasise parts of the sentence (other than finite verbs), not just nouns. Again when speaking we'd stress the most important word of the stressed phrase.

Exercise 6b - rewrite each sentence to emphasise the underlined phrase, starting with It was .... You will need to add that to each sentence. Look carefully at the underlined words in the last two questions.

EG. She liked the smell of hyacinths the best.
It was the smell of hyacinths that she liked the best.
1. He found learning maths most difficult at school.
2. He first heard about it from Pamela.
3. She got the job because she was the best qualified.
4. Mike first met Susie when they were both studying in London.
5. I only realised who he was when he started speaking.
6. I didn't hear about it until yesterday.
If we want to emphasise finite verbs or actions, we need to use a wh-cleft. You can find out more about these at my post on Nominative clauses (link below). I'll be doing a more comprehensive post on cleft sentences soon.

It as introductory / preparatory object

Some verbs are often followed by it + adjective / noun complement + to-infinitive / other type of clause

Exercise 7a - Fill the gaps with adjectives and noun complements from the box

an honour   · best   · fascinating   · hard   · our duty   · rude   · strange   · wise  
1. Some experts believe it not to plant tomatoes too early.
2. People often consider it not to answer emails quickly.
3. I'd count it to be your best man.
4. We feel it to keep the countryside tidy.
5. You may find it to believe, but
6. I've found it absolutely talking to you, Professor.
7. In the circumstances, he judged it not to say anything.
8. I thought it a bit that he hadn't told anyone else.

Some other verbs follow slghtly different patterns

Exercise 7b - Fill the gaps with verbs from the box

hate   · leave   · love   · make   · owe   · prefer   · take  
1. I'd it if you didn't tell anyone about this.
2. I it you're not coming to the pub, since you're so busy.
3. His bad manners it difficult for me to forgive him.
4. I it when you say sweet nothings in my ear.
5. Sammy was at pains to it quite clear how he felt.
6. Charlie's done a lot for us, so we it to him to make sure he's OK.
7. I it when people throw litter in the street.
8. I'll it to you to sort out all the details.

it's and its

Remember the difference:
  • it's is a contraction of it is and it has
    • It's a lovely day, isn't it?
    • Yes, it's been sunny all week.
  • its is the possessive determiner from the pronoun it
    • Have you seen where the dog left its bone?
    • This computer has lost some of its speed.

It's time - to do / we did

When it's obvious who the subject is, we can use it's time + to-infinitive. When we need to specify the subject of the infinitive, we can either use for + object + to-infinitive, or a past tense with present meaning (Unreal past).
  • It's time to go to bed. (when it's obvious who I'm talking about)
  • It's time for her to go to bed. (when we want to specify who)
  • It's (high) time she went to bed. (when we want to specify who)
Note - we only use the intensifier high when we use the Unreal past version.
There's more about it's time, inclusing an exercise, in my post on Unreal past (link below)

It or they? Of governments, groups, families and couples

In British English we often refer to organisations comprising groups of people as they rather than it and these words are often used with a plural verb. These group nouns include government, council, committee, company, band, club etc.
We can also refer to them in the singular when we see the group as a single entity, in BrE we have that choice. According to Wikipedia, in official British documents, the government are always referred to in the plural, perhaps to emphasise collective responsibility.
In American English, however, these words are almost always used in the singular, except for, I think, sports teams.
I would always refer to a family or a couple as they, not it. But in some US newspapers, they seem to prefer it, for example, a couple in its thirties. For more about that, have a look at my post - 'It's a boy' (link below)

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