2

I saw this sentence in a Guardian article about parentship:

"Parenting is challenging and the only training we get is through our own childhood experiences, many of which it would be preferable not to pass on."

My question is, after the comma in second sentence fragment, there is "many of which" and "it", which pronoun refers to which noun?

It happens to me that there are two subjects or am I wrong?

3

The which in many of which is a relative pronoun with experiences as its antecedent.

But it in your sentence is not a relative pronoun with an antecedent. It doesn't refer back to any noun in the sentence. The it here is usually called the dummy 'it' or anticipatory 'it'.

As The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar (p130) states:

The dummy it has no intrinsic meaning, but plays a role in the grammatical structure of a clause ... .

The dummy it is used to fulfil the principle of end-weight: the 'heavier' or more important elements of an utterance are placed at its end. You could write:

Not passing on our own childhood experiences would be preferable.

But a much more likely structure is:

It would be preferable not to pass on our own childhood experiences.

The use of the dummy it to enable such constructions is called extraposition.

So, deconstructing the passage you cite we get:

Parenting is challenging and the only training we get is through our own childhood experiences. It would be preferable not to pass on many of these experiences.

  • Out of curiosity, and because I'm not sure if I am right, would the phrase still work without the pronoun "it"? I see the "it" as a way of focussing our attention, as an emphasizer, but non-essential. – Mari-Lou A Feb 8 '18 at 9:52
  • @Mari-Lou A. I think yours would be an interesting question in its own right. Omitting the it in the Op's text seems more or less acceptable to me. But the extrapolated statement Many experiences would be preferable not to have seems a little more dubious. – Shoe Feb 8 '18 at 9:59
  • @Mari-LouA: omitting the it forces a passive construction: many of which would preferably not be passed on. – KarlG Feb 8 '18 at 10:58
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The period can be rewritten thus: "It would be preferable not to pass on many of our own..."

There are two sentences: the first is "It would be preferable"; and the second, "not to pass on many of our own...".

The second sentence is the subject in this subordination relationship. "It" then refers to that whole second sentence ("not to pass on...").

Edit: since my native language is a Romance, the "it" still (after years) feels alien and unecessary, but the grammar concepts apply almost perfectly.

Edit 2: As Shoe pointed out, the same passage may be expressed this way:

Not passing on our own childhood experiences would be preferable.

evidencing the subordination relationship: a period with two sentences, the first of which is the subject.

But while the "it" in

It would be preferable not to pass on our own childhood experiences.

doesn't refer back to any noun in the sentence, it is a pronoun that acts as subject of "would be preferable". And what would be preferable?

...not to pass on our own childhood experiences.

Therefore the "it" is a forward reference to what is to come.

  • You don't need to say "edit" every time you improve a contribution. Regular users can see your editing history via the timestamp. – Mari-Lou A Feb 8 '18 at 9:54
  • Sometimes it makes it clearer to whoever parachutes in here. I haven't pointed out all my edits: just the ones I found pivotal. – lbrayner Feb 8 '18 at 10:11

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