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The subject of the verb 'rain' is always 'it' when the referred sense of the verb is 'rain fall'

It rained heavily last night.

Do you think it will rain again this evening?

It looks as though the pronoun 'it', despite functioning as the subject of the verb 'rain', is merely acting as some sort of structural complement without adding anything to the meaning of the sentence.

Does that make the verb 'rain' distinctive and add it to a special class of verbs?

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I don't think the verb rain "always" uses "it" ("usually", perhaps, but not "always") – the sky rained tears, the clouds rained heavily, the heavens rained for forty days and forty nights, etc. –  J.R. Dec 29 '12 at 11:02
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@J.R.: But those are more like figurative expressions, aren't they? –  user32480 Dec 29 '12 at 11:07
    
The clouds rained heavily is not figurative; but even if it is, water rained down on them is not. –  Andrew Leach Dec 29 '12 at 11:12
    
@Inglish: I don't see anything figurative in "The clouds rained heavily." Also, "the sky rained tears" might be figurative, but "the sky rained droplets of water" wouldn't be. We usually use "it" because it's generally obvious where rain comes from (unlike, say, "it scared me," where we'd expect to find a more explicit subject much of the time). But "always" implies a rule that doesn't exist. In short, rain isn't in a "special class of verbs," it's just often used in places where we need not supply as much contextual information, to the point where it almost sounds odd if we do. –  J.R. Dec 29 '12 at 11:26
    
@J.R.: I accept your argument. It is not always the subject of the verb rain. –  user32480 Dec 29 '12 at 11:33
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3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Yes, it belongs to a special "Zero-argument" class of verb.

Normally predicates take 1, 2, or 3 arguments;
respectively, these are called Intransitive, Transitive, and Bitransitive:

  1. Bill arrived. ARRIVE (BILL) Subject only
  2. Sarah greeted Bill. GREET (SARAH, BILL) Subject and Direct Object
  3. Bill gave Sarah a gift. GIVE (BILL, GIFT, SARAH) Subject, Direct and Indirect Objects

But not all predicates have arguments. This is rare, but weather predicates are a case in point. Weather just happens, and nothing is implicated culturally in its occurrence, beside the event itself.

  • It's raining. RAIN () Dummy it subject.

The dummy subject here is called "Weather it", to distinguish it from the "Distance it" of

  • It's a long way to Tipperary.

and the "Extraposition it" of

  • It's difficult for me to understand this.

In languages that aren't as fussy about subjects as English, the verb rain by itself (suitably inflected if necessary) is a complete sentence. In Indonesian, hujan means 'rain', both verb and noun, and "Hujan!" is an ordinary sentence that means, unsurprisingly, 'It's raining!'. Just like the English utterance "Rain!".

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John Lawler, I am reading your Logic Guide (PDF) and it's making a lot of sense. I was not being pedantic or something but I certainly felt that the verb 'rain' belonged to some special class of verbs and I wanted to know what that class was. Thanks for nailing it. –  user32480 Dec 30 '12 at 5:59
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All weather-related verbs work this way, not just rain: consider drizzle, drip, snow, sleet, hail. You can even say “It blew hard and long last night,” or “It clouded up.”

English is not a pro-drop language, so every verb needs a subject; when nothing else is available, it will do.

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With every question I ask here, I must say I am learning more than I expected. Pro-drop language is a new concept to me and I am trying to know more about it on Wikipedia. I also liked the pun in "... it will do". Thanks. –  user32480 Dec 29 '12 at 11:51
    
It is true that every English sentence needs a subject (unless it's predictable, when it can be sluiced away by Conversational Deletion). This is Rule One for English syntax. However, if one doesn't believe in "pro-drop", it's difficult to take it as an explanation. –  John Lawler Dec 29 '12 at 17:39
    
@JohnLawler That some languages permit an implicit subject is not a matter of “belief”, but one of fact. What you choose to call languages like Spanish or Latin compared with English or French is completely immaterial, and belief does not enter into it. Choose what term you will, it does not matter. –  tchrist Dec 29 '12 at 17:44
    
The thing is, Pro and pro are totally theoretical, as is any distinction between them. Hence they can be dispensed with, and should be. Especially in nonprofessional explanations. –  John Lawler Dec 29 '12 at 18:05
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It is a good question, but 'rain' has little to do with it other than being an example. It is a common example, so much so that some people refer to the 'weather it'.

It is not exclusive though. We could also say "It is dark outside" or "It is clear that the tea will run out"

The it is being used as a dummy subject. This is basically any it with no referent; another form of dummy subject is there - "There seems to be a hold up"

In some ways this can be seen as a form of passive construction, in that the actor is left unstated, and for the same reasons that some people grumble about passives, they also grumble that dummy subjects make your writing fuzzy and unclear. They say that we should write

"I think that the tea will run out"

or

"David thinks there is a hold up"

but that assumes that we actually know who thinks the tea will run out or that there is a hold up. As with passives, there are times when the actor is just not known.

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With the addition of dummy pronoun to my 'yet to research and know' list of concepts, I am now fully loaded with material worth a week's study. Thanks. –  user32480 Dec 29 '12 at 13:05
    
@Inglish Teeture: It is also known as the existential 'it' –  FumbleFingers Dec 29 '12 at 16:47
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