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Deconstructing “it”

Q: I’m flummoxed by the word “it” in a sentence such as “I like it when you sing.” What in the world is “it” doing there?

A: The sentence that puzzles you, “I like it when you sing,” is a familiar construction, especially in spoken English. We find nothing grammatically wrong here, as we’ll explain later.

But you’re right—on close examination, this familiar old pattern seems curiouser and curiouser.

In sentences like this a verb, often one expressing a state of mind (“like,” “love,” “hate,” “appreciate,” etc.), has as its object the pronoun “it,” followed by a clause beginning with “when.” (A clause, as you know, is a group of words that has a verb and its subject.)

Here are some similar examples: “She loves it when he smiles” … “I hate it when people swear” … “Mom and dad appreciate it when you do the dishes” … “He always regrets it when he’s rude.”

All of these examples seem quite innocent on the surface. But what’s happening underneath?

As you can see, there are two clauses here. Using your original sentence as our model, the clauses are “I like it” and “when you sing.”

In the main clause, “it” is the direct object of the verb “like.” And to identify what “it” is, the speaker follows with a subordinate clause that begins with “when” and names an event or circumstance.

So the “when”-clause is an object too, in a sense. It explains what the object “it” refers to: an occasion on which someone sings. So in that sense the “when”-clause resembles a noun clause.

But it also seems to have an adverbial use, since it says when something happens. It describes the condition required for the main clause to be true. So instead of referring to a time, this “when” refers to a situation.

Often sentences like these can be reversed: “I like it when you sing” neatly corresponds to “When you sing, I like it.” In the second version, “it” refers back, instead of forward, to the explanatory “when”-clause.

But you wouldn’t want to move a “when”-clause to the front unless it’s fairly short and simple. Here’s a sentence that would sound clunky if flipped:

“I hate it when a birthday invitation says ‘No gifts, please’ and then everyone but you brings one anyway.” There’s no felicitous way to move “I hate it” to the end.

Linguists have interpreted this kind of construction in many different ways over the years. For example, they’ve used a variety of terms in discussing the role played by “it.”

In A Grammar of the English Language (1931), George O. Curme interprets this “it” as “an anticipatory object” that points forward to a fuller object clause.

In his book When-Clauses and Temporal Structure (1997), Renaat Declerck calls this a “cataphoric” or “anticipatory” pronoun, one that depends on the “when”-clause for its meaning. (A “cataphoric” pronoun is one that refers to a following word or phrase.)

Other commentators have described this “it” as an “expletive” or “pleonastic” pronoun—one with no meaning of its own, but merely a sort of placeholder required by the word order.

But we’ve also found arguments that the pronoun is not “pleonastic”: it’s not without meaning, since it refers to an event.

Linguists have also disagreed in their views of the “when”-clause in sentences like these—is it a relative clause, a noun clause, an adverbial clause, or perhaps some combination of those?

Declerck regards these clauses as adverbial. And when preceded by “it” acting as an object, he writes, they are “extraposed when-clauses.” (Essentially, an element is “extraposed” when the pronoun takes its place and shoves it aside.)

Without the “it” (as in “I don’t like when people argue”), the “when”-clause itself “fills the object position,” Declerck writes. So in that case the clause is not “extraposed.”

As we mentioned above, we find nothing grammatically wrong with sentences such as “I like it when you sing.” They seem natural and idiomatic, and they work well. But they do seem more at home in informal or spoken English.

No usage authorities, to our knowledge, have condemned the use of a “when”-clause to describe an event. And the use of “it” as an object that’s then echoed by the “real” object is also a common feature of English, as in “I like it, this movie,” and “He loathes it, that old eyesore.”

So we have no quarrel with these “when”-clauses in spoken or informal English, but if you prefer to avoid them you certainly can. Many constructions are similar, though in some cases they may be subtly different.

Declerck says, for example, that “I hate it when you talk like that” will generally be interpreted as similar to “I hate your talking like that.”

But the two don’t mean precisely the same thing. One refers to an occasion, the other to what could be habitual behavior. If the person you’re addressing always talks like that, then either construction would be appropriate.

Another kind of substitution comes to mind. You can often replace “when” by “that” and still make grammatical sense.

But again, your meaning may be changed. “I like it when you sing” isn’t the same as “I like it that you sing.” In the first sentence, the object of the liking—“it”—is not the fact that the person sings, but occasions when the person sings.

A few years ago we wrote a post on a similar subject, the use of “when”-clauses in definitions after forms of the verb “be.” (Example: “Despair is when you see no way out.”)

As we wrote then, this construction is common and has a long history, but it’s been considered colloquial since the mid-19th century. It’s common in speech and casual writing, but it’s generally avoided in formal English.

If you see “when”-clauses after the verb “be” in formal writing, it’s usually in reference to time, as in “Yesterday was when I heard the news” or “This is when you should change the oil.”

And now is when we should sign off.

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