It is hard to say whether - it

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8769

Senior Member
Japanese and Japan
What does “it” in the last sentence in the following passage refer to, #1 or #2?
1. to say whether these poems were intended to be published or to be kept simply at home
2. whether these poems were intended to be published or to be kept simply at home

Emily Dickinson is one of the greatest poets America has ever known. She wrote hundreds, hundreds of poems, but most of them remained unpublished during her lifetime. It is hard to say whether these poems were intended to be published or to be kept simply at home. 

First I thought #1, but now I am beginning to wonder if #2 might be correct. What do you, native speakers of English, think?
 
  • tepatria

    Senior Member
    Canadian English
    It is hard to say could also be expressed as I find there is difficulty in expressing an opinion on whether... I agree with Enrique, it is hard to say what the it refers to!
     

    neal41

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    What does “it” in the last sentence in the following passage refer to, #1 or #2?
    1. to say whether these poems were intended to be published or to be kept simply at home
    2. whether these poems were intended to be published or to be kept simply at home

    Emily Dickinson is one of the greatest poets America has ever known. She wrote hundreds, hundreds of poems, but most of them remained unpublished during her lifetime. It is hard to say whether these poems were intended to be published or to be kept simply at home. 

    First I thought #1, but now I am beginning to wonder if #2 might be correct. What do you, native speakers of English, think?
    #2 is the better analysis. 'It' is a dummy subject that replaces something else. "Whether these poems were intended to be published or to be kept simply at home is hard to say" is a perfectly normal sentence whereas "To say whether these poems were intended to be published or to be kept simply at home is hard" is possible but less natural.

    If someone asks you "Should I do X or Y?", it is normal to say "That's hard to say". You would not say "To say that is hard". In other words 'hard to say' functions as a unit.
     

    mplsray

    Senior Member
    What does “it” in the last sentence in the following passage refer to, #1 or #2?
    1. to say whether these poems were intended to be published or to be kept simply at home
    2. whether these poems were intended to be published or to be kept simply at home

    Emily Dickinson is one of the greatest poets America has ever known. She wrote hundreds, hundreds of poems, but most of them remained unpublished during her lifetime. It is hard to say whether these poems were intended to be published or to be kept simply at home. 

    First I thought #1, but now I am beginning to wonder if #2 might be correct. What do you, native speakers of English, think?
    This use of it is referred to as the "anticipatory it," defined in the Oxford Companion to the English Language, edited by Tom McArthur, as

    A term for the pronoun it used in advance of the word, phrase, or clause to which it relates: 'It's clear to me (that) you never meant to do that'; 'I take it that you are annoyed.'
    The author then goes on to cite examples of the anticipatory it used as a subject, as in your example. To put it another way, the sentence you cite could be seen as

    Whether these poems were intended to be published or to be kept simply at home is hard to say.

    with the subject phrase replaced by it and the phrase itself moved further back in the sentence.

    Say as used here has the sense of "To state as a determination of fact." (See here.)
     

    mplsray

    Senior Member
    #2 is the better analysis. 'It' is a dummy subject that replaces something else. "Whether these poems were intended to be published or to be kept simply at home is hard to say" is a perfectly normal sentence whereas "To say whether these poems were intended to be published or to be kept simply at home is hard" is possible but less natural.

    If someone asks you "Should I do X or Y?", it is normal to say "That's hard to say". You would not say "To say that is hard". In other words 'hard to say' functions as a unit.
    A while back in this forum, I also concluded that the it which was the subject of a thread discussion was a dummy, when, as it was soon pointed out to me, it was an example of the anticipatory it. A dummy subject doesn't act as a replacement, or, as Tom McArthur puts in in the work I cited earlier, "This use [anticipatory it] is usually distinguished from another known as prop, empty, dummy, and introductory it, where the pronoun does not refer to anything."

    I will note, however, that McArthur's use of the term "usually" keeps alive the possibility that some authorities do consider this use of it to be an example of the dummy it.
     
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