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I wanted to leave the question title as is so as not to take away from my amusement :).

Anyway,

It's raining.

What is raining? Is it the sky? The clouds? The weather? The rain? What is "it"? Any historical insights on the statement?

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Well, it is three o'clock in the morning, it is dark outside, and it could be argued that I am not qualified to answer this question anyway (it is really sad that I'm not a linguist), so I will just point you to Wikipedia and leave it at that. –  RegDwigнt Nov 28 '10 at 2:51
    
+1 @RegDwight, I was at a loss for some name to stick to it, I couldn't Google it. Dummy pronoun it is, then :) –  Kit Nov 28 '10 at 3:02
    
It's a non-referential [Dummy][1] subject, as has been pointed out. [1]: english.stackexchange.com/a/73821/15299 –  John Lawler Jan 7 at 19:24
    
'Of course you know what "it" means.' –  outis Mar 23 at 21:37

10 Answers 10

up vote 15 down vote accepted

Definitions for it in my Webster's 3rd New International Dictionary include:

2a used as an expletive subject of an impersonal verb that expresses a simple condition or an action without implied reference to an agent about the weather ... or time.

It is raining or It is two o'clock are examples of 2a.

2b used as an expletive subject in other statements or questions having an undefined subject

If it hadn't been for your help, I couldn't have finished in time is an example of 2b.

3a used as an anticipatory subject of a verb whose logical subject is another word or phrase or clause

It is I who have the answer to the question is an example of 3a.

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Your last example, “It is I who have the answer…” feels borderline ungrammatical to me — I really want the verb to agree with it! “It is I who has the answer” feels somewhat better, but still jarring. I’ve never seen this construction discussed technically, though, so it may be just me: is either version more widely used or accepted, or considered more correct, than the other, do you know? “It is Robusto who has the answer…” would be a less debatable example, in any case :-) –  PLL Jan 28 '11 at 4:55
    
Hmmm… actually, in an analogous case, “It’s the comments that make StackExchange a great system!” is definitely correct, not “*It’s the comments that makes…”, so I guess the verb does generally agree with the noun phrase in this construction, not with “it”. And indeed, googling around, the very form you use is well-attested in literature: “Behold, it is I who have created the smith that bloweth in the fire of coal…” appears in some Bible translations! So maybe it is just I who find your example strange? (Golly, I still really prefer “It is just I who finds…”! Or “It’s just me that finds…” :-P) –  PLL Jan 28 '11 at 5:02
    
@PLL: Google Books reports 79K hits for "It is I who has", against 210K for "It is I who have". Just as in your "comments" example, it is very much a dummy pronoun that barely even gets a vote in the verb agreement. –  FumbleFingers Mar 20 '12 at 20:21

Well, the short answer is that it does not matter. The widely accepted explanation is that the “it” in “it is raining” does not refer to anything.

If you are curious, the verb “rain” is sometimes used with a subject such as the sky and clouds. The Oxford English Dictionary (the link requires subscription) gives many examples of this usage from Old English to the twentieth century. One of them is:

1972 Nature 24 Mar. 139/1 The primary purpose of the experiments with seeding clouds was to increase the amount of rain from the clouds, or to cause them to rain if they would not otherwise have done so.

(Emphasis added on “cause them to rain.”)

Note that I am not implying that the “it” in “it is raining” actually refers to the clouds or the sky.

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+1 for using the dummy pronoun in your first sentence, as if by accident. –  David Richerby Mar 22 at 15:36

This is a workaround to plug avalent verbs into the rigid English sentence structure.

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Nothing.

In some languages, a subject is always present in the sentence, even when conceptually there is no subject. English is one of them, as well as French ("il pleut" for "it's raining").

In other languages, like Portuguese for example, you don't use any word for the subject when it doesn't exist. We say "chove" (just the verb) for "it's raining".

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Raining reflects a state; the unresolved it – in the absence of another anchor – defaults to referencing our global environment or world state.

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There is no evidence for this claim. –  Colin Fine Nov 29 '10 at 13:58
    
More to the point, this seems to imply that you could say, Our global environment is raining or The state of the world is raining. Neither one sounds correct to me. –  Jason Orendorff Mar 27 '11 at 1:25
    
Well, at risk of putting words in someone else's mouth, I think Leondz means that the word "it" is representing a concept for the state of the world or some such, not that you could substitute the specific words "the state of the world" for "it" in such sentences. Like if I say that "I" means "a reference to one's self" (to quote a handy dictionary), that doesn't mean that you could rewrite the sentence "I went to the store" as "A reference to one's self went to the store." –  Jay Mar 20 '12 at 17:08
    
Leondz is expressing a dissenting view of the "weather it" that "it" refers to "a general state of affairs in the context of the utterance", (from the Wikipedia article on dummy pronouns). –  outis Mar 23 at 21:39

In the sentence It is raining, Merriam-Webster states (In reference to it):

used as subject of an impersonal verb that expresses a condition or action without reference to an agent

In other words, it has no identifiable character in this context.

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It isn't referring to anything specific. It's just a grammatical construct of English, which requires that sentences have a subject. Other languages like Latin or Japanese (known as pro-drop languages) don't require an explicit subject and omit the it. You can, for example, express the same meaning simply with "pluit" (Latin).

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"It" doesn't refer to anything here. It's just a stand-in for the subject. "It" is the noun of the sentence, but it is not behaving as a traditional referent.

Standard English syntax requires a subject and a verb in each sentence, but some ideas become bogged down by this. To say for example, "The sky is raining," in English is obvious. However, English has evolved into very simple nouns and verbs (and all the rest). We don't deal in declensions anymore, and as our verb conjugation is comparatively very simple, it does sometimes lead to a few awkward structures.

In Spanish, we'd just say, "Está lloviendo." Verb + Gerund. The verb construction is third person singular and in that context just implies a state of being.

Or, in Latin, it would be "pluit", which can mean, "It rains" (habitual), "It is raining" (current action), or "It does rain" (emphatic). Alas, Latin is both awesome and at the same time terribly, terribly limiting.

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Outstanding first post, Mary Beth. Welcome to the Stack! I hope you don't mind that I took the liberty of editing your post a bit to make it a mite more clear. –  Uticensis Mar 26 '11 at 10:25

Just musing ...

Suppose your child says "My friend Sally's dog died," and you reply, "Yes, it is sad." Who or what is being "sad"? Sally may be sad, but your comment isn't really about Sally. The dog isn't sad -- he's dead. (Or if dogs have immortal souls, maybe he's sad and maybe he isn't, but in either case that's not what you're trying to say.) Really you're saying that the fact that pets die is a thing that causes general sadness for humanity.

Or if a physics teacher asks, "Do you understand why photons cannot penetrate an opaque barrier?", a student might reply, "It is clear." What is "it"? Certainly the opaque barrier is not "clear". :-) Myabe the concept being discussed is clear. Maybe in this case you could say that "it" is "my understanding of the concept being discussed".

One could go on with other examples. My point is that in such sentences, "it" is a very amorphous word, I don't think you could pin down a single thing for it to refer to in any such sentence. Rather, the reader is supposed to intuit it from the context.

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Here it can refer to a condition that something is happening, i.e. rain.

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protected by RegDwigнt Oct 5 '12 at 11:42

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