I just encountered this sentence in the novel David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. Why is it grammatical? I am just not sure why there could be no conjunction between the two subjects it and he.

And, it being low water, he went out with the tide.

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    It's a very well-written sentence at that. Sep 14, 2019 at 8:27
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    @BenjaminHarman and Kate Bunting, thanks for your advice! But either way, I still feel a bit strange, because usually participial phrases seem to be used to modify a subject rather than a verb(?); also a participial phrase can begin with a pronoun ("it" in this case)? It seems quite different from the participial phrases we usually see: englishsentences.com/participial-phrase
    – Jane
    Sep 14, 2019 at 8:57
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    It's not a participial phrase. "It being low tide" is a 'absolute' construction, a non-finite clause with "it" as subject, and the gerund-participial VP "being low water" as predicate.
    – BillJ
    Sep 14, 2019 at 11:06
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    This sentence from the novel David Copperfield by Charles Dickens is grammatical because it is a sentence from the novel David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. You cannot learn English by questioning native speakers of English. You can only learn English by following their lead.
    – RegDwigнt
    Sep 14, 2019 at 11:20
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    @Jane No, you have misunderstood the very notion of a ‘grammatical code’. Textbooks aimed at English language learners never present the real language in full.
    – tchrist
    Sep 14, 2019 at 18:29

1 Answer 1


[It being low water], he went out with the tide.

The bracketed element is a supplementary non-finite clause.

Since it contains a subject, "it", it belongs to what is known as the absolute construction, one that is subordinate in form but with no syntactic link to the main clause "he went out with the tide".

Supplements are not modifiers; rather, they have a semantic 'anchor' that they refer to, in this case the main clause. But there is no explicit indication here of the semantic relation between the supplement and the anchor. This has to be inferred from the content of the clauses and the context.

The natural interpretation here is causal, more specifically 'reason': "He went out with the tide because it was low water".

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    Thanks BillJ! Your explanation has cleared my confusion!
    – Jane
    Sep 14, 2019 at 13:35
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    The "it" in this sentence is unusual in that it is a pronoun, but unlike most pronouns doesn't take the place of any specific noun. A similar case would be the sentence: "It is raining." What is raining? The sky? The weather? You can't really replace the "it" in that sentence with any noun without sounding awkward. Sep 14, 2019 at 17:05
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    Yes, it's the so-called 'weather' it. A meaningless dummy pronoun serving the purely syntactic purpose of filling the obligatory subject position.
    – BillJ
    Sep 15, 2019 at 6:40
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    Another example is "It's 10pm" or "It's 2019". And these can be used similarly to the original sentence: "It being raining, he grabbed his umbrella."
    – Barmar
    Sep 16, 2019 at 18:22

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