It’s raining outside, but what is “it” all about?

It is raining outside.

It seems to be raining outside.

There appears to be a rainstorm blowing in.

Photo by Jill Burrow on

Apart from talking about some gloomy weather, these sentences also share another common thread. Think about the subjects of these sentences. What does “It” mean? Where is “There”? Why do we even need them in these sentences?

These types of pronouns are known as expletive pronouns (no, not those kind of expletives, that’s for another post). These expletive pronouns, also known as pleonastic pronouns or dummy pronouns, act as placeholders in languages that have a strict requirement for subjects. English is a language that really wants to have a subject, regardless of whether that subject actually means anything. Compare the examples above to these sentences:

Is raining outside.

Seems to be raining outside.

Appears to be a rainstorm blowing in.

Just reading these sentences, you probably got a queasy feeling in your stomach telling you “oh, I don’t like this at all”. That’s your native intuition as a speaker of English kicking in to tell you that those are not grammatical sentences. But some of these sentences are only bad because you are reading them as opposed to hearing them. Listen to this clip from Pawnee’s own Leslie Knope.

Parks and Recreation: Season 5 Episode 19

Seems to me we oughta use it.” When we read sentences without subjects, it provokes a stronger reaction compared to hearing someone say it, especially in the quick, casual register used in the clip above.

So what does this mean for the English language as a whole? Well, its hard to say for sure. It could be that we are witnessing a gradual language change where we are becoming more comfortable with ditching these meaningless expletive pronouns in our speech. After all, there are languages that are able to talk about the weather without the need for expletive pronouns.

In a language like Italian you can say “sta piovendo” where the “sta” is would be a verb like ‘be’ in English, and “piovendo” of course means ‘raining’. The word for word translation for a phrase like this would be “is raining”, and if you ask someone who speaks Italian, they likely wouldn’t get the same queasy feeling from “sta piovendo” that you get from “is raining”.

English isn’t the only language that requires these dummy pronouns to describe the weather. Germanic languages all require these pronouns in sentences, even if they don’t refer to anything at all. In German for instance, the phrase “es regnet” translates into English as “it rains”, where again, the ‘it’ doesn’t refer to anything in particular, but it needs to be there for the phrase to make sense (let’s ignore the lack of a verb and tense for the sake of simplicity here).

But is English changing? As a linguist, it’s not my job to try and dictate what should happen to language or to tell you to do the same either. What I can say though is that this might be something to keep your ears open for. Language phenomena have this funny way of sticking in your brain once you know about them. These expletive pronouns are something that may have gone completely unnoticed by you for most of your life, but now that you know a little bit more about them, you will probably notice them a lot more often. If this is the result of natural language change happening in real time, maybe the next time the rain is falling wherever you are you can go outside and scream “IS RAINING!” to get people used to this change a little bit faster.

Thank you for reading folks! I hope this was informative and interesting to you. Be sure to come back next week for more interesting linguistic insights. If you have any topics that you want to know more about, please reach out and I will do my best to write about them. In the meantime, remember to speak up and give linguists more data.