I have myself used and been OK with it in sentences like:

  • What is it that you're doing?
  • What is it that it means?

But now I can't quite understand why it is necessary here.

Also a very common usage:

I can't help it that I am lazy.

What is the role of it in these sentences? Is it dispensable? For example, can I instead say, "I can't help that I am lazy?"

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    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dummy_pronoun – Kris Dec 15 '13 at 11:35
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    In the sentence "I can't help it that I'm lazy" it is a dummy object for strictly transitive verbs when you have a that clause. It's not required if the verb can also be intransitive, like in your example. An example of where it's required is: "I find it [adj, eg. 'crazy'], that...." because "to find" is strictly transitive. – Ledda Dec 15 '13 at 11:59
  • @Ledda But when a verb is followed by a 'that' clause then the clause can be considered its object? Can't you say : ' I found that the room is empty' – Arun Dec 15 '13 at 13:17
  • @tylerharms,@Kris Is it strictly a dummy pronoun as in that linked question? In those examples "it" fills in for the subject when there isn't one(such as:"it is raining"). Somehow I don't see that the usage of "it" in the sentences I have given is exactly the same as in those examples. – Arun Dec 15 '13 at 13:25
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    No, actually it's not. "I can't help it" is a fairly idiomatic bit of spoken English, and we end up being redundant in saying "I can't help it that I'm lazy" because the "it" refers to the laziness. This is normally ironed out in written English as, as you've suggested, "I can't help that I'm lazy" or "I can't help my laziness". – tylerharms Dec 15 '13 at 13:49

The use of "it" in this manner is simply redundant. I cannot think of an example where this actually benefits the sentence structure. The following would be simpler and more effective:

  • What are you doing?
  • What does this mean?
  • I can't help that I am lazy.
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    Only in the third example is the it actually redundant and can simply be left out. It is not redundant in the first two, where it is required to make the cleft structure grammatical (“What is that you’re doing” is ungrammatical). The versions you have given are just the underlying, non-cleft versions of the sentences. Saying that cleft sentences do not benefit sentence structure is patently untrue. They have their place, and they benefit communication just as much as any other optional construction that has its place. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 22 '17 at 16:41

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