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Sometime on the Internet we see some cute cat doing some cute things:

A cute cat doing cute things

And because of that, an English speaker will say: It's too cute.

Because I'm French, and in French we have no good equivalent for 'it', I wonder...

Does the 'it' stand for:

  • The cat.
  • The situation (what the cat is actually doing).

In French we will respectively say:

  • Il/Elle est trop mignon/mignonne (depending if the cat is a He (default) or a She).
  • C'est trop mignon (the 'C' standing for the situation)

Finally what will be the correct translation for the two phrase below ?

[edit]

A simple way to give a response to my question will be to put it plural, what did you say when you see this:

Two cutes cats doing cute things

  • They are too cute. (the cats)
  • It's too cute. (the situation)
  • Maybe "it" is the cat. But maybe "it" is the same as the star of such sentences as "It's snowing" or "It's Wednesday". – GEdgar Apr 15 '15 at 13:52
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    We're looking at a cat. The pronoun for animals in the singular is it, doesn't matter how cute, small or young it is; it is, and always will be an animal. We're looking at a picture/image, the pronoun for things in the singular is, once again, it: It's a pretty basic English question, and perhaps better suited at ELL. Edit: Cats (plural) = they. Otherwise, That's a cute picture – Mari-Lou A Apr 15 '15 at 15:58
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    It's more or less the same in Italian: che dolce; è dolcissimo. We cannot expect English to follow the same "rules" that govern our native tongues, and the point of my comment was to say that this is a basic English language "rule". Furthermore, it's not a given that most native speakers will waver between the two options you provided. I would say: "That's a cute picture" OR "Meeow! Cat fight!" :) – Mari-Lou A Apr 15 '15 at 16:14
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    @Orace It's simply ambiguous (as some have previously pointed out). I'd go for the cat, but it can mean both the cat and the situation (and even the picture, why not?), and the only person who knows is the one who wrote it in the first place. – Lucky Apr 15 '15 at 16:16
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    I know this is peripheral to the question, hence posting as a comment. I'm a native (UK) English speaker. I find this expression slightly jarring and have the impression it is actually much more commonly used by non-native speakers. I would say "that is so/very cute" to refer to the situation or "it is so/very cute" to refer to the kitten (assuming I'd discovered the urge to remark on cat pictures and use the word "cute" at all). Google ngram shows similar usage for "it is so cute" and "that is so cute" and gives a not found for "it is too cute". – Keith Apr 16 '15 at 0:12
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Either. An animal of unknown gender is it.

  • Look at the cat, it's so cute.
  • Look at what the cat does. It's the cutest thing I have seen.
  • Look at the picture, it's cute.

The translations would be

  • It is too cute (the cat, any gender) and
  • It is too cute (the situation).

You can use This/That is too cute to emphasize the situation though.

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    I did not think of using "this" for speaking about the situation, thanks! Knowing that I want to say: if "this" is for the situation, the "it" will only be used for the cat... I'm not comfortable with this lack of precision :o) – Orace Apr 15 '15 at 13:30
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    @Orace: I was always taught that "literally", qu'est-ce que c'est translates as What is it that this is? (or ...that that is? if followed by que ça). But colloquially we just say either What is it? or What's this/that?. – FumbleFingers Apr 15 '15 at 13:58
  • @FumbleFingers, although it's unrelated to my question I laughed at What is it that this is?, thanks for the enlightenment on this French fineness. It's look like the word Aujourd'hui literally the day of today. – Orace Apr 15 '15 at 14:12
  • What is it about kittens and the Internet? Why does everyone simply go batty when they see something furry, cuddly and innocent-looking? – Mari-Lou A Apr 16 '15 at 6:23
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    Lol. It is built-in: bbc.co.uk/guides/zc8bgk7 and bbc.com/news/uk-england-28036667 – mplungjan Apr 16 '15 at 6:24
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I don't think "it" refers to anything here. "It's too cute" is an idiomatic expression comparable to "It's raining" or "It's time for dinner"--in both of which the "it" is a nonreferential or dummy pronoun.

  • Thanks for pointing out this possibility, I consider it close to the "it is the situation" answer. Am I wrong ? Also have you any arguments to put the cat out of the game ? – Orace Apr 15 '15 at 19:17
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You don't have a word for "it" in French because the concept of a non-gendered noun does not exist in French (as far as I know). When you use a pronoun in place of a noun in French, the noun it references is gendered. Nouns in English are not gendered, so we don't have distinctly masculine or feminine pronouns. The word "it" is simply a pronoun which refers to an object without a gender.

The case of referring to a cat is a little more confusing because the cat is in fact either male or female. That is, the cat does have a sex, and English speakers might sometimes personify the cat by associating the cat's sex with a gender. Instead of saying, "It is cute," then, we might instead say, "He is cute," if the cat is male or, "She is cute," if the cat is female. This is obviously exactly the same as using "il" or "elle" in French.

In the case of saying, "It is cute," though, we might not know the cat's gender or think about cats as having a gender. Because the word "cat" doesn't have an implicit gender like it does in most Romance languages, we use the generic pronoun "it".

See this example:

Suzanne went to the store.

Suzanne is presumed to be female, so we use a feminine pronoun:

She went to the store.

And here:

Look at my cat! His name is Toby.

We know from the use of the word "his" (and the male name "Toby") that the cat is male, so we might respond by saying something like:

He is very cute!

But the word "cat" doesn't carry a gender unless I give you more information about the cat to help you figure it out. So If I were to post a picture with a caption like:

This is my cat!

You can't tell from what I wrote if my cat is a male or a female, and the word "cat" in English does not carry an implicit gender. This means you need an ungendered pronoun to refer to the cat, like:

It is very cute!

Now that we recognize we can use the word "it" to refer to the cat, we can clarify why it does not refer to the general situation by which the cat is being cute. To do so is easy. Analyze the grammatical parts of the sentence:

It is very cute!

It - This word is used as a pronoun. Since we're trying to figure out what the pronoun references, we'll avoid saying much more about it for now. At any rate, "it" is the subject of the sentence.

is - This word is a verb which shows a condition, state, or property belonging to the sentence's subject, "it".

very - This word is just an adverb which modifies the word "cute".

cute - This is the property which is being described as belonging to the sentence's subject, "it".

The question before us, then, is what is meant when we say it? To answer, we can use an old trick that is generally useful for determining the antecedent to a pronoun: replace the pronoun with the nouns we think it might modify. Then decide which expression is more correct according to what we're trying to say.

[It] is very cute!

Or,

[The cat] is very cute!

Or,

[The specific thing that the cat is doing] is cute!

In the last case, the English language offers a convention that can help a listener or reader understand that we're talking about the specific thing the cat is doing and not about the cat itself. To accomplish this, we would use the demonstrative pronoun "that" or "this".

That is cute!

Using a demonstrative pronoun clarifies that we're talking about something specific to the particular situation shown in the image--in other words, the situation. Without the demonstrative pronoun, the implication is that we're referring to a persistent quality of a particular thing, like maybe the cat or the photograph itself.

The adjective "cute", though, modifies the cat, of course. It would sound a bit silly to describe a copy of the photograph as "cute", and it sounds perfectly sensible to call the cat "cute".

  • That bit about the answer to your question wasn't meant to be contrite. That's genuinely the answer to the question. I was simply giving it directly. I'm sorry if you got a different impression. As for why "it" refers to the cat and not the situation, I'll edit my answer to elaborate. – R Mac Apr 15 '15 at 18:23
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    I see that you have developed my (first) comment on mplumgjan response: since there is a that for the situation, the it should be used for the cat! – Orace Apr 15 '15 at 21:59
  • Ok, I am sorry for the misunderstanding. I've deleted my previous comments as well. All in all, I hope you find this answer helpful. Cheers! – R Mac Apr 15 '15 at 22:03

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