Non-referential Pronouns: It’s Raining!

“They always say a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Wait, who says? Just who are “they”, the people who always seem to say these platitudes? Some people refer to this as the “omniscient they”: the byline for conventional wisdom quotes that are as well-known as they are unattributed to any identifiable author. However, the kind of pronouns used in these quotes also appear in completely common statements, like the one in the title.

Structure-Focused English

In English, for a statement to be an independent clause (and thus a complete sentence) it must have a subject and a verb. However, in some cases, there is no subject that makes sense. Look at the example, “It seems so hot outside!” What is “it” exactly? The weather may be hot, but there is no clear antecedent for the pronoun “it” in this sentence as stated. However, because the rules of English dictate that a sentence must include a subject, the dummy pronoun “it” is introduced. It has no meaning — “it” is just a placeholder in this case.

Whereas most pronouns are referential and must refer to some specific noun (their antecedent), non-referential pronouns like “they” and “it” in the examples above have no antecedent and no real meaning.

Practice Time!

Identify the pronouns in bold below as either (a) referential or (b) non-referential. Check your answers at the end of the page!

  1. They say fortune favors the brave.
  2. The friends met at the mall, then they went out to dinner.
  3. If you work hard, you’ll make it for sure!
  4. After studying all night, she was totally out of it in class.
  5. The weather has gotten so hot that it is hard to do anything at all.

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(Answers: 1.b 2.a 3.b 4.b 5.b)

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