Where would the English language be without this simple two-letter word? Without it we wouldn’t be able to refer to an object that isn’t clearly male or female for a second time, without repeating the whole word. Like any pronoun it makes speech and writing simpler and more fluid.
But it also has its little quirks. Like when we say:
Just, it, you know? It’s raining!
See also it’s cold, it’s quiet, it’s five o’clock etc.
The meaning of these sentences wouldn’t cause much difficulty for any students, beyond absolute beginners. Yet some people still get confused by them because they expect it to refer to something concrete. This is another classic case of confusion caused by thinking about what grammatical rules would seem to demand, as opposed to looking at the practical use of language. It might not seem to make sense to use it when it doesn’t refer to a clear object, yet, every English sentence needs a subject, and impersonal verb phrases don’t have an agent doing the action, so let’s just stick It at the beginning of the sentence and not think too much about it.
There are more nuanced ways in which non-native speakers can have trouble with it though. For example:
—Look at that dog outside, it’s really cute, isn’t it?
—Oh yeah, it’s adorable!
—I prefer your dog though, it’s much cuter.
—What did you call my dog?
—You said it’s cute!! He’s not an it, he’s a he!
Why is the first dog an it for both people, but the second one a he? Obviously, the owner knows the sex of the dog and therefore calls it he, but what if their friend didn’t know? I’m sure the owner would still have taken offence, as people have a strong aversion to referring to pets as it. Even if the person describing the animal as it has no idea what it’s sex is, it still feels insulting to hear a dear pet thus described. Other animals, though? No problem, we don’t know them. It is just too impersonal, too cold, to refer to pets. Obviously we develop close bonds with our pets and tend to anthropomorphize them, but still, not all languages will refer to pets with he or she, reserving those pronouns for people.
I think that our aversion to referring to pets as it reflects an uneasiness we have with the word.
Think about how it’s used in horror.
One of the better horror films of recent times is 2014’s It Follows. Without revealing too much about it, the title could also have been The Scary Thing Follows or The Monster Follows. But any English speaker will tell you that It Follows is much scarier, because we don’t know what it is. The unknown has always been frightening to us. We all like things to be ordered and classified to some degree, but it runs completely against that instinct. It (or It?) makes us uncomfortable because it defies categorisation. And at the same time, it’s nothing. On its own, without an obvious referent, it doesn’t mean anything. It has no inherent meaning. He or she at least tells us someone or something’s sex, but it? Nothing. Maybe that’s also why we don’t like to think of our pets as its: it scares us to think of them as generalised, instinctive animals, and not the special unique personalities we know them to be.
In many works of horror a creature is referred to as It in order to make it seem more mysterious, more monstrous and less human.
The most obvious example of using It in is Stephen King’s 1986 classic, uh, It. What’s interesting is that the titular monster isn’t really a mysterious unknowable entity. Well, in some ways I can’t get into without spoilers it is, but King’s intention in creating It was to make an ultimate embodiment of evil that featured the characteristics of various monsters. And so in the book, It can take on any imaginable form, often appearing as classic movie monsters that the main characters are terrified of. And that’s scary: not knowing where It is or what it might appear as.
So maybe what makes us uneasy about it is because it’s too full of meaning. It can be anything, and perhaps being overwhelmed by that multiplicity of possible meanings is too much to deal with. It’s interesting that this doesn’t seem to apply to all languages. The novel (and 1990 mini-series) was often translated into titles along the lines of The Killer Clown, or It Returns in other languages. This uneasiness with it seems to be something particular to English. Certainly, languages which use an equivalent of he when in English we use it wouldn’t have this problem, as there’s at least something concrete (gender) about he, even if it’s being used to refer to a genderless object.
Or maybe the answer is c) all of the above. Maybe what we don’t really like about it is that we can’t pin it down. It’s simultaneously impersonal, cold, meaningless, but also too full of possibility. And yet we can’t do without it. In this post I’ve used it 62 times so far. It’s a perfectly ordinary, everyday pronoun. And yet, when the sun goes down, the wind begins to howl around the eaves, and we’re all alone, IT feels scary, doesn’t IT…