Dummy pronouns

We use the term dummy pronoun to refer to the pronouns it and there used  as grammatical subjects without any meaning, but with a relation to another element in the clause that carries the meaning.

The ’dummy’ pronouns it and there

In English the requirement that finite clauses have a preverbal subject is very strong. Therefore, even in contexts where the subject occurs late in the clause, e.g. due to discourse principles, English makes use of dummy pronouns in subject position.

In English there and it are used in different contexts, illustrated by the following examples:

(1) There has been a mouse in the garage.

(2) It is hard for me to read without my glasses.

Clauses such as these actually have two subjects (boldfaced); the initial one, the dummy, takes part in syntactic operations characteristic of subjects in general. Thus, in alternative/yes-no questions, it inverts with the first auxiliary verb, as illustrated in the first of the following two examples. This can be compared to the second example with the ordinary, non-dummy subject Bill.

(3) Has there been a mouse in the garage?

(4) Has Bill been a teacher all his life?

The second subject, the so called postponed subject, also has subject properties, in particular it agrees in number and person with the predicate verb.

Thus, replacing the verb in the first example above with a plural form renders the sentence ungrammatical, which means that the postponed subject is the singular a mouse.

Similarly, replacing the singular postponed subject with a plural one without also changing the form of the verb results in ungrammaticality, at least in formal registers (* indicates unacceptability/ungrammaticality):

(5) *There have been a mouse in the garage.

(6) There have been three mice in the garage.

(7) *There is three mice in the garage.

In English, the choice between it and there is determined by the form of the postponed subject. Thus, when the postponed subject is a noun phrase, there is used as the dummy. When the postponed subject is a clause, it is used as the dummy. This was illustrated in (1) and (2) above, but will be further illustrated below.

There as a dummy subject

Below follow some more examples of there used a dummy when the postponed subject is a noun phrase. Two things should be noted: First, the noun phrase may consist of just a pronoun. Second, the postponed subject has indefinite reference.

Thus definite noun phrases, e.g. proper nouns, pronouns with definite reference, e.g. personal pronouns, or full noun phrases introduced by definite determiners are only possible with the so called ‘list’ reading, illustrated in the last example below.

The construction with there as a dummy pronoun is often used either to assert the existence of something or to present a new participant in the discourse, hence it is sometimes referred to either as the existential construction or the presentational construction.

(8) There were a lot of people outside the stadium.

(9) There is nothing in the paper about the accident.

(10) There are several options for us to choose between.

(11) There’s a place in the sun where there’s hope for everyone.

(12) There appears to be no problems with this proposal.

(13) There must be some kind of way out of here.

(14) Who is a possible candidate for the job?

        – Well, there’s Bill…and John, and maybe a few others.

        – Well there’s this guy, and possibly some others.


In English, by far the most common verb used in the existential construction is (some form of the verb) be, which may be preceded by auxiliaries (e.g. must) or semi-auxiliaries.

It as a dummy subject

Below follow some more examples where it is used as a dummy subject when the postponed subject is a clause. The postponed subject may be either a finite or a non-finite clause (typically a to-infinitival clause or an ing-participial clause).


(15) It is obvious that someone has made a mistake.

(16) It does not matter what you say; she will still leave.

(17) It worries me that he brought a real gun to the party.

(18) I think it would be fun to host the Academy Awards.

(19) It surprised me to hear Bill complain about the food.

(20) It is common for Swedes to make this kind of mistake.

(21) It wouldn’t be any good trying to tell him to take the bus.

Some postponed ing-forms, the so called gerunds, are best regarded as noun phrases, and thus occur with there as the dummy subject.

(22) There is no denying that she is a very good player.

(23) There is no trusting him.

Weather-it

It is used as a pure dummy without a related postponed subject with verbs and predicative adjective phrases denoting weather conditions, distance, and time. In these expressions it is a true dummy, which is semantically empty and just fulfils the subject requirement in English.

Weather
It is used as a dummy with verbs and predicative adjective phrases denoting weather and other similar conditions (light, noise, etc).

(24) It is raining.

(25) It’s windy in Chicago, as usual.

(26) It’s freezing outside.

(27) It’s been very humid these past few weeks.

(28) It gets dark much earlier in October.

(29) It was very noisy in the children’s room.

However, when the weather condition is expressed in a postponed noun phrase, there is used in accordance with the general rule.

(30) There was a snowstorm last night.

(31) There was a lot of heavy rain in the mountains.

(32) There’s too much noise in here.

Specific temperatures
We would expect expressions involving specific temperatures to behave like other weather conditions with respect to the possibility of using there as a dummy subject. However, it is used even with the head noun degree.

(33a) It was eighty degrees in the shade.

(33b) *There were eighty degrees in the shade.

Distance

It is used as a dummy with verbs and predicative adjective phrases denoting distance. It is also used when distance is encoded as a noun phrase.

(34) How far is it from here to Moscow?

(35) It’s just over ten miles to the nearest gas station.

(36) It’s a long way to Tipperary.

Time

It is used as a dummy with verbs and predicative adjective phrases denoting time. As with expressions denoting distance and temperature, even if time is expressed in a noun phrase, it is used.

(37) It is only two days since I got here.

(38) It was late in the afternoon, and the sun was beginning to set.

(39) It’s too late now.

(40) It is time for a break.


When the time expression, especially the noun time itself, is used to denote the amount of time available, e.g. for an activity, there can be used in accordance with the general rule. Alternatively, a personal construction with a form of the verb have may be used.

(41) There’s time for a short break. (alt. We have time for a short break.)

(42) There’s no time for play. (alt. We have no time for play.)

A Swedish perspective: Verbs after dummy there (click to expand/contract)

In Swedish the range of verbs used in the existential construction is much wider than in English, including verbs like vara, finnas, stå, ligga, sitta, etc. Most often, the corresponding constructions in English use the verb be.

(1) Det står ingenting i tidningen om olyckan. (There is  nothing…)

(2) Det sitter en katt på trappan. (There is a cat…)

(3) Det ligger lite pengar på köksbordet. (There is some money…)

(4) Det finns nästan inget vin kvar. (There is hardly any wine left.)


A Swedish perspective: The Swedish word det (click to expand/contract)

Det in Swedish often corresponds to another pronoun in English, or to another construction altogether. Here we list a few cases where Swedish det is not straightforwardly translated by it (or there).

Det replacing predicatives

To replace a predicative after the verb be (Swedish vara, bliva) Swedish normally uses det, whereas English uses so. In both languages the pronoun is normally fronted in this case.

(1) Little Billy is a real darling.  – So he is. (Det är han verkligen.)

(2) Mary is a lawyer, and so is her husband. (Det är hennes man också)

Notice that in the second case, English has subject-operator inversion, i.e. the same order of subject and predicate verb as in yes/no questions.

Det replacing verb phrases (with or without complements) and clauses

In addition to replacing predicatives, so can be used in English to replace verb phrases and clauses. In this usage, so is preceded by an auxiliary, including dummy do.

(3) Zlatan said that he was going to score at least 20 goals.
     – So, he did, and so he will.

(4) Eto’o scored 20 goals last season, and so did Zlatan.

After reporting verbs

So is used to replace a dependent clause functioning as the object of the verbs believe, expect, hope, fear, say, suppose, think, tell (5). Similarly, to replace a clause complementing the adjective afraid (6):

(5) – Did Mary really cook this delicious meal?

– I believe/suppose/think/hope so. (Det tror/antar jag.)

(6) – Is she leaving on Friday?

 – I’m afraid so. (Jag är rädd för det.)

With some of these verbs, the pronoun so may be left out with little or no change in meaning.

Anaphoric uses of Swedish det – no pronoun in English

In a couple of contexts, Swedish uses the third person pronoun det where English has no corresponding pronoun.

 
Question – answer pairs

When a question is partly repeated in the answer, Swedish uses det to replace the main verb and its complements. English has no pronoun in such answers.

(7a) Har du matat korna? – Ja, det har jag.

(7b) Have you fed the cows? – Yes, I have.

(8a) Tyckte du om pjäsen? – Nej, det gjorde jag inte.

(8b) Did you like the play? – No, I didn’t. 

 
Coordinate structures

In clauses coordinated by och, menfast, Swedish often uses det to replace the main verb and its complements. English has no pronoun in such cases.

(9a) Kalle gillar hundar, men det gör inte Lisa.

(9b) Kalle likes dogs, but Lisa doesn’t.

(10a) Jag var inte säker på om han åt kött, men det gjorde han.

(10b) I wasn’t sure whether he ate meat, but he did.

 
Det replacing a clause after certain verbs

After the verbs ask, care, find out, forget, know, notice, promise, remember, tell with an understood clausal object, English has no pronoun, whereas Swedish uses det as a complement of the corresponding verbs.

  
(11) Where did you put my jacket?

– Why do you ask? (Varför frågar du det?)

– I don’t remember. (Det minns jag inte.)

(12) My brother is very poor.

– I’m sorry, I didn’t know. (Det visste jag inte)

(13) Bill is leaving his family.

– How did you find out? (Hur fick du reda på det.)

– Who told you? (Vem talade om det för dig?;also: Who told you so?)

Alternatively, with these verbs, English uses a demonstrative pronoun, mostly that, but this is gaining some ground.

(14) Why do you ask that?

(15) I didn’t know that.

(16) How did you find that out?

(17) Who told you that?

In some cases, it may also be used in English, with a more precise, or concrete meaning than so.

(18) Bill is planning to repaint his house, and he wants me to do it. (i.e. paint Bill’s house)

(19) Bill is planning to repaint his house, and he wants me to do so, too. (i.e. paint my house)

In the first example it refers to the exact content of the antecedent (‘paint Bill’s house’), whereas in the second, the reference is vaguer.

Swedish impersonal constructions

Swedish, like most other Germanic languages, has a range of impersonal constructions, where det is used as a dummy subject, but without a clear relation to a postponed subject. In a few cases, English uses an existential construction with an ordinary noun phrase or a gerund as the postponed subject, as in the following examples:

(20)There’s a bad smell in here. (Det luktar illa härinne.)

(21) There was a knock on the door. (Det knackade på dörren.)

(22) There was singing and dancing. (Det sjöngs och dansades.)

In other cases, English uses a construction with a contentful subject rather than a dummy.

(23) I like milk. (Det är gott med mjölk./Jag tycker om mjölk.)

(24) Grammar is interesting. (Det är intressant med grammatik.)

(25) Maths is difficult. (Det är svårt med matte.)

(26) We’ve run out of coffee. (Det är slut på kaffet.)

(27) The lights finally turned green. (Det blev äntligen grönt ljus.)

(28) The phone rang. (Det ringde i telefonen.)

(29) How’s your mother? (Hur är det med din mamma?)