I know the use of "existential it" is frowned upon, but I'm not entirely sure how to rephrase the following sentence to remove it:

It is hard to tell what would have occurred if the battle had been lost.

Is something like this really all that bad? How can I rephrase this to remove that "it"?

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    I doubt that it's frowned upon. Could be another English myth propagated by teachers who feel like they know too much. Of course, you can always do it Yoda-style: "Hard to tell, it is." Commented Feb 9, 2012 at 3:29
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    @Manishearth: Very funny, although, "it" is still the subject there, so it doesn't really help a whole lot. Commented Feb 9, 2012 at 4:09
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    Yes, but now nobody notices that you're using 'it'. I sort of gave that as a way to fix something that's not broken. Commented Feb 9, 2012 at 4:14
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    Telling what would have occurred if the battle had been lost is hard
    – Mostafwani
    Commented Oct 4, 2012 at 1:40
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    This it is called a dummy subject.
    – Angelos
    Commented Jul 27, 2016 at 10:59

4 Answers 4


That sentence is not using the "existential 'it'" that's frowned upon; it's just using an ordinary, unexceptionable feature of English grammar.

The "existential 'it'" that's frowned upon is the it that can be replaced by there; see e.g. http://www.odlt.org/ballast/existential_it.html, which gives the example of "It was nothing I could do" meaning "there was nothing I could do." But obviously your sentence cannot be changed to

*There is hard to tell what would have occurred if the battle had been lost.

  • Thank you. I had never heard of "existential it" before. Obviously I don't move in the right circles. Commented Feb 9, 2012 at 3:46
  • Thanks to everyone for the answers. I was always a bit fuzzy on what defined its use. Commented Feb 9, 2012 at 4:10
  • @JohnLawler: Me, either. At first, going by the OP's post, I assumed it meant the same as "expletive it", and couldn't figure out how anyone could possibly object to it!
    – ruakh
    Commented Feb 9, 2012 at 13:01

A sentence that starts with

It is hard to tell

and continues with a tensed embedded question object complement clause like

what would have occurred if [something ...]

is an example of what's called Extraposition in English. Extraposition is a construction that takes a sentence with a "heavy" subject complement clause, like

What would have occurred if [something ...] is hard to tell.

and "moves" the subject clause to the end of the sentence (where it's more comfortable, since English is right-branching), and leaves a dummy it behind to fool us into thinking that the sentence still starts with a noun phrase subject.

It's hard to tell what would have occurred if [something ...].

Extraposition is one of many "movement" rules that place long complex constructions towards the end of the sentence, where they are more easily parsed and understood.

English Rule No.1 is

Every sentence must have a subject NP.

That's why there's a there in There's nothing here, and why there's an it in It's raining, and It's a long way to Tipperary, and It's hard to tell what else.

  • Like you, I'd never heard of this "existential it" before. But it does rather beg the question as to why we sometimes use "there", and sometimes "it" to fill what looks like a semantically empty slot forced on us by basic grammar. And though I have nothing but gut-feel to back it up, I suspect sometimes here, he, and maybe other words might be used this way in certain dialects. Commented Feb 9, 2012 at 4:27
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    You betcha. If it sounds right, it is right. Never try, as I once did (in vain of course) to explain to a Malaysian, in Malay, what the it's in It's raining (in Malay, very sensibly simply Hujan 'Rain') is doing. The key phrase to search for, btw, is Dummy Noun Phrase; there's a big litracher. Commented Feb 9, 2012 at 4:33
  • Good one! Googling "Dummy Noun Phrase" took me straight to this previous question that cleared up something that (as an avid over-user of "that") I've always been slightly bothered about when using that word! (I managed to restrain myself from calling it "that question" first time around, but I can hardly avoid it now it really is! :) Commented Feb 9, 2012 at 5:03
  • Yes. The fact that is Factive, like know (as opposed to believe). Factive predicates Presuppose their complements. Commented Feb 9, 2012 at 5:10

If you really insist on eliminating the it:

What would have occurred if the battle had been lost is hard to tell.

But there really is nothing wrong with your sentence. This is really a dummy pronoun, which is a common feature of English. E.g.:

It's a boy! [Said by a proud new father. Notice that he doesn't say He's a boy.]

It's sunny.

There is a cat.

It's too early!

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    English grammatically insists on a subject even where one doesn't make any logical sense. Commented Feb 9, 2012 at 4:34
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    Subjects are grammatical. Grammar is just rules, not logic. Nothing grammatical "makes logical sense"; it's all abitrary, like anything evolved. But it works; also like anything evolved. Commented Jul 23, 2014 at 15:00
  • @John Lawler: Apropos your comment above, does that hold for linguistics as well: is linguistics arbitrary too?
    – user405662
    Commented May 6, 2021 at 23:45
  • Sure, in the sense that any science depends on the people who study it, and would have developed in a different way if different people had been involved. Who becomes a linguist is arbitrary, and therefore so is linguistics. Commented May 7, 2021 at 1:27

I liked the answer by John Lawler. And also, agree with the common opinion about this 'it', that it is not really something that is frowned upon frequently, and it seems it is not even the one intended. Anyhow, in common usage at least, you could replace it by the following: "No one can tell what would have occurred if the battle had been lost." Also, another option could be "One finds it hard to tell what would have occurred if the battle had been lost". Still the original sentence is the one that seems to convey the message right.

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