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I am very confused. Unless I am mistaken, I know "it" has to be a noun of some sort, but I am unable to figure out what noun "it" is referring to.

What is "it" in the following sentence:

It is clear that Bob likes doughnuts.

Heres another couple of examples:

It is impossible to fly.

  • I understand how this relates but it unfortunately does not help with this question. – JBis Nov 21 '17 at 23:05
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    “It” is the fact that Bob likes doughnuts. That fact is clear. – Dan Bron Nov 21 '17 at 23:13
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    In the second example, “it” is a dummy pronoun, used because the syntax of English requires it, but the semantics of the utterance doesn’t. – Dan Bron Nov 21 '17 at 23:32
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    The first sentence is an 'it-cleft' sentence and wiki has a fair amount to say about the 'it' pronoun in the intro and under the 'Structural issues' heading. – Phil Sweet Nov 22 '17 at 0:17
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The it in both example sentences is, as noted, a "dummy it" -- that is, this it is not referential,
and thus doesn't have any meaning, because meaning in pronouns is a matter of reference only.

This dummy it (there are several others) is an artifact of a syntactic rule called Extraposition, which works to make sure that "heavy" subject noun phrases (clauses and the like) don't show up
at the beginning of the sentence where they're hard to process, like this unwieldy example:

  • For a child to open this package is difficult.

Instead, Extraposition inserts a dummy it in place of the heavy NP and shifts it to the end,
where it is much easier to process.

  • It is difficult for a child to open this package.

Of course, Extraposition is governed by the matrix predicate (in this case be difficult), and some predicates require it, others forbid it, and many allow it under certain circumstances. Like all syntactic rules; nothing new here.

As the the original question -- what is it?
The answer is that it's several things:

  1. it's a pronoun
  2. it's a dummy (i.e, it's a pronoun with no reference)
  3. it's the subject of the sentence
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    What’s an example of a predicate that forbids extraposition? – Lawrence Nov 22 '17 at 1:56
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    Oh, for instance, seem and appear only allow Extraposition with that complements (It seems/appears that he's late), but they require A-Raising with infinitive complements (He seems/appears to be late but not *It seems/appears for him to be late). – John Lawler Nov 22 '17 at 3:42
  • I'm not an expert, but it feels like this device may have evolved as a way to "un-Germanify" sentences, if you know what I mean: to avoid that characteristic of German wherein you don't know what the sentence is about till you get to the end. – Max Williams Nov 22 '17 at 10:58
  • The verb goes at the end only in tensed subordinate clauses in German. Infinitive clauses work much the same way as in English. – John Lawler Nov 22 '17 at 19:26
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In both sentences, It fills in for the subject of the sentence.

In the example "It is impossible to fly," It is substituted for the subject "to fly".

  • To fly is impossible.

In the sentence "It is clear that Bob likes doughnuts", It anticipates the subject (this time a that clause) "That Bob likes doughnuts".

  • That Bob likes doughnuts is clear.
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Answer from the comments:

In the first example "it" refers to "the fact that Bob likes doughnuts."

In the second example "it" is a dummy pronoun and therefore does not refer to anything.

Links for more information on Dummy Pronouns:

  • Not everyone thinks it is referential in cleft sentences. You should provide some support for that point of view for this particular sentence. – Phil Sweet Nov 22 '17 at 0:19

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