But in an old man who has known human joys and sorrows, and has achieved whatever work it was in him to do, the fear of death is somewhat abject and ignoble. (Bertrand Russell How to grow old from Portraits from Memory; emphasis mine)

What is the purpose of the structure "it was" in the sentence? Does "it" refers to "work"?

How does the sentence compare to the following formulations? (Are they correct? Why? How are they different from the original sentence?)

  1. has achieved whatever work was in him to do
  2. has achieved whatever work in him to do
  • It's the same it in: "It's just not in me to finish this job today." So it's more like the drive, resolve, energy, gumption... – Jim Feb 6 at 20:59
  • @Jim I thought "it" in your example refers to "to finish this job today"? So the sentence is an alternative formulation of "To finish this job today is just not in me"? – Fang Jing Feb 6 at 23:36
  • 1
    I've never thought about it like that. I've always thought of it as: The resolve/energy is just not in me to finish the job today. Or alternatively: I don't have the energy to finish the job today. Your formulation makes use of metonymy so while it ultimately means the same, it's a different parse. – Jim Feb 7 at 2:37

The number 2 formulation is not correct. The "it was" is the "to be" verb referring to the work. There needs to be such a "to be" verb in the sentence referring to the work.

It could be the work that "was there" for him to do, or that "there was " for him to do etc. You can state it as past or past perfect or future as needed.

You may think of the work as his goal or objective.


First we should say that English allows for multiple ways to say the same thing.

As mentioned @Eliot's answer, #2 is simply incorrect English.

However, #1 to me does not convey quite the same flavor as Russell's phrase does, which comes off as a bit more poetic. The phrase "whatever work was in him to do" works well enough, but "it was" to me tries—in the context given—to add a bit of wistfulness, leaving it possible to think that had the old man not grown old and tired, he'd have done more work. The "it" has left him.

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