I don't want to get too bogged down in exactly what constitutes a dummy pronoun usage (personally, I'd include things like Who's there? It's John, even if not everyone else does).

But on this recent ELL question I wrote the comment I'm not convinced the possessive form its can ever be a true "dummy" usage.

The only reason I said I'm "not convinced" is because I couldn't think of any examples. Can anyone either prove me wrong or explain why I'm right?

  • I can't find any evidence either: awelu.srv.lu.se/grammar-and-words/selective-mini-grammar/…
    – user66974
    Commented Oct 9, 2016 at 12:58
  • As far as I know (though I’ll admit I have no sources for the claim), dummy it can only function as the subject of a clause. That is, the full subject. Since its can only ever be a determiner, it can never function as the full subject of a clause. I’d say the two are mutually exclusive and there is no possibility of a dummy it. Commented Oct 9, 2016 at 13:10
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    @Janus: That makes a lot of sense. Without wishing to get too precise about exactly how one defines "dummy pronoun", I suppose it's reasonable to say the usage only arises in the first place because the syntactic context requires a subject (where semantically we're unwilling or unable to explicitly identify that subject). Commented Oct 9, 2016 at 14:19
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    'It's doing its best to rain.' Commented Oct 9, 2016 at 14:31
  • @EdwinAshworth Nice! But doesn't 'its' refer to (the first) 'It' (the dummy)?
    – Řídící
    Commented Oct 9, 2016 at 14:35

2 Answers 2


As I'm sure you know, one of English's "small clause" constructions consists of a subject and a gerund phrase, where the subject may be either in the objective/accusative case ("them leaving was a surprise") or the possessive/genitive case ("their leaving was a surprise").

This is the case even when the subject is a dummy it. Hence, we find the following (real) examples:

  • […] the reader is conscious of its being John the Baptist who speaks these words: […] [link]
  • […] the possibility of its raining […] [link]
  • […] most philosophers are committed to its being impossible that 1 + 1 = 3 […] [link]

though in all three cases, it could have been used instead (at the risk of irritating prescriptivists).

That said, I don't think this use of dummy its is ever possible with nouns as opposed to gerunds; for example, although "them/their leaving was a surprise" can be reworded as "their departure was a surprise", "its raining was a surprise" obviously can't be reworded as *"its rain was a surprise".

Consequently, I also don't think that the non-subject uses of dummy it have corresponding uses of dummy its. English does have an "objective genitive" — consider e.g. "her nomination", meaning "her being nominated" — but it's comparatively restricted, and I don't think it ever works with gerunds, only with nouns. (The nouns can be identical to gerunds, as in e.g. "his killing at the hands of […]", but I think they do have to be nouns: cf. "a series of killings".)

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    Excellent thinking! Hadn’t thought of this possibility at all. Those examples pretty much have to be considered dummy its’es (unless you count weather it as a separate thing, in which case the second one isn’t). They all sound quite bizarre to me (I would perforce use it, prescriptivists be damned), but I can’t deny that they’re structurally sound and that the only possible reason they could be ungrammatical is that they’re possessive dummy it’s. Commented Oct 10, 2016 at 9:18
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    What @Janus said. I must admit that if the possibility of its being used like this had occurred to me when I was posing the question here, I'd probably have just dismissed it (thinking "That doesn't work!"). But of course it is valid, and has been used repeatedly in print. Commented Oct 10, 2016 at 12:59

To start with, "its" can both be possessive pronoun(PP) as well as possessive adjective.(PA) " The kennel is its"(PP)...it belongs to ( the dog). "It is its kennel(PA). In my opinion, I don't think the genitive " its" can and should be used as dummy. On the other hand, "it's" can. "It", IMO, which is a personal pronoun should never be confused with " its".

  • Nah. It's not idiomatically viable to say The kennel is its. You can only do that with mine, yours, his, hers, ours, theirs. Commented Oct 10, 2016 at 12:48
  • It’s cannot be used as a dummy. Dummy it can be fused with is just like regular it, but the result is not a ‘dummy it’s’. And as FumbleFingers says, using its as a pronoun is unusual at best; in your example here, I would call it downright ungrammatical. You can find cases where it’s at least borderline acceptable, like Iain Banks’ “Claiming the vengeance that was so surely its, exacting the price its enemies all deserved to pay” from Algebraist (2005); but in general, it’s unidiomatic or ungrammatical. Commented Oct 10, 2016 at 14:56
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    Sorry but there is nothing IDIOMATIC about this. Plus, I don't see why THE KENNEL IS ITS should be wrong, except of course if you have a citation. If you can use MINE, YOURS, HERS, THEIRS, OURS and HIS like that, why on earth can't you use ITS. Consider this, THE GOVERNMENT HAS A CHOICE TO MAKE...THE CHOICE IS ITS TO MAKE. The puppy belongs to that dog...it is that dog's...it is its. Perfectly grammatical. Cheers.
    – user200193
    Commented Oct 10, 2016 at 21:55
  • Plus, it's can very much be used as a dummy. Who's knocking?... It's I...you can simply say I. . it's as dummy would sound like cleft. Thanks.
    – user200193
    Commented Oct 10, 2016 at 22:01
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    @FumbleFingers I’m afraid I must stand with the answerer on this one and demand a citation for your assertion that one cannot use its as a possessive pronoun the way one can hers and theirs. Here, in contrast, is a citation for the contrary proposition that one can indeed do that very thing; several citations, in point of fault. Elsewhere on this cite Lawler himself has said that this is completely possible, but as it was, of course, nestled in a comment, it is proving a challenge to search for.
    – tchrist
    Commented Oct 10, 2016 at 22:35

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