10

Several years ago I heard of something called dummy subjects in high school. It was then stated that, for example, it is a dummy subject when it starts many instances of sentences, e.g.

It is rainy today.
It is hard to imagine how hard is to live alone.
It is not my university degree that matters here.

My question is if we can use it with plural subjects? For example in

If some think that in Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s works it is only social themes that matter and the writer is ignoring fictional arrays and artistic techniques, at least, endings of his stories show wrongness of this idea.

My question deals with the italicized part. If this usage is OK, can we also write they are social themes that matter? I mean can they also play the role of a dummy subject?

  • 2
    Using they would refer to M.D.'s works, so it would change the meaning of the sentence. The use of it in this sentence seems absolutely fine to me. What matters is the following: only social themes. – oerkelens Oct 31 '14 at 8:48
  • 3
    "...for it is many months since I have considered her as one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance." (Mr. Darcy) "It is several years since...", etc. – anongoodnurse Oct 31 '14 at 9:36
  • 1
    If you wanted to, you could reword the sentence in a way that gets rid of the dummy subject: "If some think [that] the only themes that matter in Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s works are social ones, ..." (The word enclosed by square brackets is optional.) Regardless, you need to place definite articles in front of the endings and the wrongness. – Erik Kowal Oct 31 '14 at 9:53
  • Should it be 'the ending of his stories'?An article is missing. – Anubhav Singh Jun 14 '16 at 5:57
7

You have been taught correctly.

This is called the "existential it " or "dummy it ," it does not actually refer to the noun we see. It just stands for "the fact is that," or so.

As such, it does not need grammatical agreement (singular/ plural) with anything, it's always "it" as in "It is raining." or otherwise.


[EDIT]
Amended, thanks to Prof Lawler's answer.

This is a dummy it, but there is no "existential" it. … (T)his one is the it produced by the Cleft construction. … There is no plural for dummy it. In general, plural predicate nouns do not require plural subjects.

  • Best I can figure, you can crudely replace "it" with "the condition" or "the situation" (though it often reads more smoothly if you say "the condition is that it...", which kind of brings you full circle. – Hot Licks Oct 31 '14 at 20:15
10

This is a dummy it, but there is no "existential" it.
There's an existential there, which comes from There-Insertion.

There are several dummy it's, but this one is the it produced by the Cleft construction.
There is no plural for dummy it. It's it, and that's it.

In general, plural predicate nouns do not require plural subjects.
It's plural verbs that require plural subjects.
Plural verbs are not plural nouns. And vice versa.

  • 5
    +1, but why are you in exile, John? – Armen Ծիրունյան Oct 31 '14 at 10:43
  • @John Lawler Thank you Prof., this's been an existential question for many, for long. :) – Kris Oct 31 '14 at 11:33
  • @Armen For rep overflow, must be. So many have benefited already, though he mostly posts only comments. We got an answer this time! – Kris Oct 31 '14 at 11:38
  • This happens every time I travel. My macAir isn't recognized and it tells me to log in and doesn't like my password. I'll be back out of exile in a couple weeks. I may have enough roobles to make comments now, though. – John Lawler in exile Nov 1 '14 at 5:45
1

It's fine to use "it" as a dummy subject to represent an an infinitive (like I just did), a plural subject (per your question) or a subject with gender (see below.) In fact it's the best way to form certain sentences. I've taken the examples from your question and added a few, to show how they flow when we avoid the dummy subject.

1

How hard living alone is, is hard to imagine.

How hard it is to live alone is hard to imagine.

It is hard to imagine how hard it is to live alone.

2

The thing that matters here is not my university degree.

It is not my university degree that matters here.

3 (translation of something I saw in Cartagena, Spain recently.) "It was me/you/him/her/them" is another typical example.

The person who built the city walls was King Carlos III.

It was King Carlos III who built the city walls.

4

Social themes are the only thing that matters.

It is only social themes that matter.

What is interesting is that in example 4, when I avoid the dummy subject, the noun I have to insert is "the thing", which is a singular noun to identify something plural (social themes.)

Therefore the verb "is/are" in the first sentence is plural (to match the subject: social themes) and in the second sentence is singular (to match the dummy subject: it/the thing.) And the verb "matter" changes conversely.

  • The dummy it doesn't represent anything, and is not limited to infinitives. That's the it of Extraposition. It's not a pronoun and has no antecedent or meaning. It's inserted by the rule, that's all. – John Lawler in exile Nov 5 '14 at 6:41

protected by Community Dec 21 '17 at 16:03

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