I’d call it an impersonal subject - a subject that is only there because English requires an explicit subject, even when there is no “logical” subject. So an impersonal pronoun, that doesn’t actually refer to anything, is used for the subject.
statsman1982 and Scarlett67 are right: in linguistics, it’s known as “dummy it” or “expletive it” because it has no referent and is there only for the syntactic reason that all English (declarative) clauses require a grammatical subject. Weather verbs take expletive it as well; e.g., in “it’s raining” or “it’s snowing”.
English also has an expletive there as used in existential constructions, e.g., “there’s a book on the table”
@Sofi: impersonal pronouns are guys like one and you, as in “you never know”/“one never knows”
My linguist husband says most of you above may be right, depending on whose linguistic framework you’re working with. Here are some fine points, which I may or may not have understood completely:
[li]Existential expletives seem to be restricted to locative pronouns, such as “there,” which somehow sort of indicate location.[/li][li]Anaphoric pronouns refer to things already defined in your conversation or discourse. For example: “You suck. It has come to my attention that this is so” would be anaphoric. Some of the examples in the OP might be cataphoric – pronouns not defined until afterwards, like “It has come to my attention that you suck.”[/li][li]He says calling them “dummy” pronouns is controversial among linguists, since “dummy” implies that they have no content at all, but in fact they’re not interchangeable (you might say “It’s important to breathe” but you wouldn’t say “That’s important to breathe,” for instance).[/li][li]Both anaphoric and cataphoric references apparently count as deixis. Wikipedia seems to agree.[/li][li]Pleonasm seems to come up most often with reference to something like weather, as in “It’s wet out today,” where for whatever reason our grammar demands a subject that we don’t typically name explicitly. But it isn’t necessarily restricted to that.[/li][/ul]
Yes. Try replacing “it” with the infinitive phrase.
*To resolve that issue without additional costs *is not possible. To apologize would be appropriate. To single people out isn’t fair.
The sentences still make sense without “it” in the subject position. I say “position” because I was taught in high school that so-called “dummy pronouns” do not qualify as the actual subject of the sentence. I defer to the grammarians on whether I was taught correctly.
Look at the voice, too. The sample sentences are passive voice. You could rewrite them to be in the active voice and the phantom “it” disappears. The gerund form is the noun then, instead of the phantom “it.”
Resolving that issue without additional costs is not possible.
Right. I re-wrote them so they wouldn’t be in the passive voice. The sentences I wrote are active voice. The gerunds are actively participating in the verb’s action. “Singling people out” actively leads to the verb “is.”
The previous examples, one could argue, aren’t *textbook *passive voice, I agree. But by re-writing the sentences so they are clearly active eliminates the “it” and the wishy-washiness of the sentence. “It isn’t fair to single people out” isn’t as firm, forceful or concise as “Singling people out isn’t fair.” To the point. Succinct.
If you look at a sentence and that sentence just seems clunky or awkward, try re-ordering the words. Reordering the words can work miracles. Compare that to “It can work miracles to reorder the words.” (phantom it) or “Miracles can be worked by reordering the words.” (textbook passive voice)
You’re just confusing things by referring to something that isn’t at all passive voice as being passive voice. This is a common confusion. It’s often referred to by Geoffrey Pullum in his Language Log posts:
What’s happening here is that people want to complain that sentences like the ones in the OP are vague in some sense. They remember reading that it’s a bad idea to use a lot of sentences in the passive voice because they are vague. They decide that any sentence that seems vague must therefore be in the passive voice, so they call sentences like the ones in the OP passive voice.
This is wrong on several levels. First, it’s not a good rule of writing style to tell students to eliminate all passive voice in their writing. Sentences in passive voice are sometimes the best way to express what one is saying. Second, what these teachers of prose style really want to say is that students should eliminate vagueness in their writing. Making an arbitrary rule to eliminate passive voice isn’t a good way to attack the real issue, which is vagueness in student’s writing. Third, when you pretend that vagueness and passive voice are closely writing are closely related, you give people the impression that any vague sentence is in passive voice, and people no longer understand the idea of passive voice.
> Third, when you pretend that vagueness and passive voice are closely writing
> are closely related, you give people the impression that any vague sentence is
> in passive voice, and people no longer understand the idea of passive voice.
I meant to write:
> Third, when you pretend that vagueness and passive voice in writing are
> closely related, you give people the impression that any vague sentence is in
> passive voice, and people no longer understand the idea of passive voice.
"But by re-writing the sentences so they are clearly active eliminates the “it” and the wishy-washiness of the sentence. “It isn’t fair to single people out” isn’t as firm, forceful or concise as “Singling people out isn’t fair.” To the point. Succinct.
If you look at a sentence and that sentence just seems clunky or awkward, try re-ordering the words. Reordering the words can work miracles."
Passive or not, by putting these sentences in active voice, YOU DON’T HAVE THE DISEMBODIED IT anymore. If the OP has a problem with “disembodied it” usage, then reword the sentence so you don’t have it anymore. That’s what I was getting at. Okay, so maybe I was a little misled about the passive voice, but I know for darned well that when the sentences are in active voice there is no “disembodied it.”
Though a premise of my argument was faulty, the conclusion still stands firm; in these cases, active voice eliminates the “disembodied it.”
I think I see what you’re trying to argue, but your terminology is still wrong.
“Singling people out isn’t fair” still doesn’t count as active voice in the strictest sense. It uses a copula, not an active transitive or intransitive verb. If you want to count it as active, you must also do so with “It isn’t fair to single people out” which also uses a copula. As has been said, your point doesn’t relate to linguistic voice.
Although I appreciate advice from any quarter, note that I do not believe the examples in my OP are incorrect or poor style. I was looking for a grammatical term.
I will now reveal why I was asking this question in the first place. My company delivered a document to our customer with the following (more or less) sentence:
Among the customer’s comments in response was a comment on that sentence:
I thought to myself, “Of course not, because ‘it’ in the sentence is a…” then I got stuck. The reviewer understandably thought that “it” was intended to refer to “components”, to see if “the components could be appropriate to…”
Anyway, notwithstandng that the sentence in our document was a poor sentence and probably should have been rewritten, I was groping to describe the grammatical form used with “it.” I am not going to wave it at the customer, just wanted to learn something.