The Grammarphobia Blog

Pleonastically speaking

Q: Which of these two sentences is right? And why? (1) “He was the boy whose job was to plow the field.” (2) “He was the boy whose job it was to plow the field.” Many thanks for any help you can provide.

A: This is a very interesting question. The short answer is that both versions, with and without “it,” are acceptable. The longer answer—the why—is a bit more complicated.

In the final clauses of both sentences (the part beginning “whose job …”), the subject is “job,” the verb is “was,” and the object is the infinitive phrase “to plow the field.”

But in the second version, “it” has been added after “job.” In effect, the pronoun amounts to an extra subject, a doubling of the real one.

Within its entries for “it,” the Oxford English Dictionary says the pronoun is sometimes “used pleonastically after the noun subject.” (Pleonasm is the use of more words than are required.)

The extra (or pleonastic) “it” is especially common in archaic writings and in poetry—as in Shakespeare’s “For the rain it raineth every day,” sung by both the clown in Twelfth Night and the fool in King Lear.

Here’s where things get complicated. Despite its long history, today this usage is frowned upon in some cases and acceptable in others.

The use of an extra subject pronoun is now considered nonstandard in clauses like “my brother he said” or “her car it broke down.”

But the redundant “it” is still acceptable, even a bit literary sounding, in such constructions as “whose job it was to plow the field.”

In fact, we’ve noticed that this construction is especially common in clauses beginning with “whose,” where the verb is a form of “be” and the object is an infinitive phrase.

For example, “whose task it is to cut the budget,” “whose aim it was to start anew,” “whose duty it is to volunteer,” “whose purpose it was to topple the dictator,” “whose mandate it is to find a cure,” and so on.

No one frowns on usages like that, though “my brother he said” and “her car it broke down” raise a lot of eyebrows.

Why? We don’t know, but the construction with the infinitive phrase somehow managed to survive from older English with its reputation intact while the others lost respectability along the way.

In the acceptable usages we mentioned, the pronoun “it” is certainly not necessary. It seems to be added either for emphasis or for some other rhetorical purpose—for instance, variety or rhythm.

We say this because sometimes good writers will use such phrases both with and without the extra “it” in the same passage. We’ll cite a couple of examples, highlighting the phrases in boldface italics.

From Julie Salamon’s novel White Lies (1987):

“Jamaica at times played the worldly younger sister, whose job was to keep her cloistered, somewhat academic doctor-sister in touch with the goings on in the big world out there. … Geneva would become the wise commentator, whose job it was to press a mirror to her sister’s face and force her to acknowledge the presence of an adult on the glistening surface.”

From the memoir Stolen Lives (2001), by Malika Oufkir and Michéle Fitoussi:

“Then came the housekeepers, whose job was to supervise the running of the Palace and to maintain the traditions that the King valued. Muhammad V had a concubine whose job it was, on feast days, to dress him in his ceremonial costume, a white jellabah and trousers.”

The extra “it” alters the rhythm and avoids the monotony of having “whose job was” appear twice within the same passage.

Notice that in all these cases, the object of the verb “be” is an infinitive phrase: “was to keep her … sister,” “was to press a mirror,” “was to supervise the running,” and so on.

There’s yet another kind of optional “it” construction, one that creates a double object instead of a double subject. This one, too, is considered idiomatic rather than incorrect.

Here the optional “it” immediately follows the verb and precedes clauses beginning with “that.” We’ll invent a couple of examples: “I regret [it] that you took offense at my email” … “Mom resents [it] that you took the car without asking.”

The “it” in such sentences, according to The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, “can be omitted without any apparent change in meaning.”

Similarly, “it” can be used or omitted in certain idiomatic phrases. The examples in the Cambridge Grammar include “This brought [it] home to us that we were in great danger” and “He had taken [it] for granted that he would be given a second chance.”

But sometimes the “it” can be omitted only if the clauses are reversed.

The Cambridge Grammar says, for example, that “it” is required here: “We owe it to you that we got off so lightly.” But in reverse, the “it” is dropped: “That we got off so lightly we owe to you.”

Sorry we can’t be more enlightening, but we hope this helps.

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