• Snakes Alive
    240
    Syntactically, the subject is 'it.'

    Semantically, there is no subject.

    The subject is not the rain, because 'the rain is raining' makes no sense. Likewise for pretty much anything you put in place of 'it.'

    Notice also that the question 'is it raining?' makes sense, but the question 'what is raining?' does not.

    In languages, unlike English, where an overt syntactic subject is not obligatory, you often cannot put a subject before meteorological verbs like 'rain.'
  • Hanover
    4.1k
    "It" is "the meteorological conditions outside."Terrapin Station

    "It" references a generalized state of being, making no specific reference to outside or the meteorological conditions because your sentence has no context. In the paragraph: "I got a new job selling cars and I'm making all sorts of money. It's not just drizzling a little money here and there on the showroom floor. It's raining," "it" doesn't reference the meteorological conditions and "rain" doesn't even reference cloud precipitation.
  • Dawnstorm
    64
    Anyway, if we were avoiding semantics and ONLY talking about grammar per se, then obviously the subject of "It is raining" is "It."Terrapin Station

    Yes.

    As soon as you ask "What does 'it' refer to" you're doing semantics.Terrapin Station

    Yes.

    Semantically, "It" is "the meteorological conditions outside."Terrapin Station

    That's the tricky part. It is not a given that "it" is referential in the first place. One possible answer to "What does "it" refer to," is nothing, and for most (but not all) linguists that's the answer.

    One question we can ask about subjects (as arguments of verbs) is what the participant role of the subject is in relation to the verb. Is it an agent as in "I go to school," where going is an action the speaker undertakes? Is it an experiencer, as in "I'm dying," where the speaker is experiencing death?

    What is the relation between the verb and it's primary argument?

    My take on this topic is that any attempt at answering these questions is post hoc; the meaning is emergent rather than referential. "It" is referentially empty and has no semantic function until you enter the meta level and ask what sort of function it might have.

    I also don't see any reason to ask these questions. Syntactic relations are enough. I do realise that it's not a clear cut issue. Take a potential exchange:

    A: "It's raining."
    B: "No, it's not; it's snowing."

    There are three "its" in this exchange, and if I speak carelessly, I'd say that all three its refer to the same thing. Except it's a dummy it and refers to nothing, so how can it have the same reference? This is a problem, so at the very least your position is valid, if not even right.

    Consider this sentence:

    "It's true that it's raining."

    Two its, both dummy its, but clearly not "referring" to the same thing in the way the three its in the previous examples do.

    This is a situation where I see problems on either side, but my personal priorities find the problems with a generalised referent to be more severe.

    To summarise, I think the meaning of "it" arises out of the interection of grammar with the semantics of the verb and is thus vague and general. It's not referential; but it has some sort of substance, such that you can differentiate between different sorts of dummy-its. What that semantic substance is like is a problem I'm not sure how to address, but it's not a problem severe enough for me to abandon the dummy-it interpretation.

    Does this make sense?

    (To make matters worse, we shouldn't be confusing subject-predicate of philosophical propositions with subject-predicate of a sentence structure. It's harder than it should be.)
  • Banno
    3.7k
    Interesting - indeed, fascinating.

    I had taken sentence as a grammatically correct concatenation of words. Now you say there is more to it.
  • Hanover
    4.1k
    If I say, "I looked, and it is not raining," we may properly assume I looked at "it" and made that determination, which means that "it" is not a dummy pronoun, but something that can be seen and assessed.
  • Terrapin Station
    5.2k


    "It" is a pronoun, an indexical.
  • Terrapin Station
    5.2k


    Again, on my view, re semantics, terms mean, terms refer to whatever individuals consider them to mean/refer to. In other words, meaning is subjective. Contra Putnam, it is "just in the head."
  • tim wood
    1.3k
    Cool. Looks good. But is this an observation, so that it just so happens that all sentences have a subject; or is it a definition, as in, if it doesn't have a subject, it's not a sentence?Banno
    If a sentence is defined as a complete thought, then it would seem it ought to have a subject, just as a thought must be about something. But the subjects needn't be voiced. Many imperatives ("Do this..,") have an unspoken but understood subject. "Duck!" and "Run!" are other examples.

    Carried further, the notion that something unexpressed that completes the thought completes the sentence leaves open the possibility of lots of non-sentence fragments being/becoming sentences. But these are from poetry and expressive literature. e. e. cummings titled one of his books of poetry Is Five.

    Now I'd bet a six of Fosters that you know all this as well or better than I do. (If I win, being Fosters, you have to drink it - win-win for you!)
  • Michael
    7.4k
    If I say, "I looked, and it is not raining," we may properly assume I looked at "it" and made that determination, which means that "it" is not a dummy pronoun, but something that can be seen and assessed.Hanover

    I don't think so. It's the "it is raining" that is seen and assessed, not the "it" in isolation.
  • Baden
    6.8k


    The phrase "It is raining" is a semantically equivalent unit to "rain is falling" (or something along those lines).

    So you didn't look at "it" in isolation in "it is raining" or you could sensibly say "I looked at it, and it is raining". As if you could also look at an "it" that wasn't raining. You looked and saw rain was falling. You looked at a state of affairs illustrated by a phrase that is a semantic whole grammatically inclusive of a dummy pronoun.

    [Edit: Cross-posted with comment above]
  • Michael
    7.4k
    Choice B, in order to be a sentence, it must have a subject by definition...Hanover

    What about commands like "clean the dishes" (verb and object but no subject) or "go away" (verb but no subject or object)? Are they not sentences?
  • unenlightened
    2.8k
    “The rain it raineth on the just
    And also on the unjust fella;
    But chiefly on the just, because
    The unjust hath the just’s umbrella.”
    — Charles Bowen

    So here we have the authoritative explanation that it is the rain that rains. And should you be so foolish as to enquire whether the rain raineth cats and dogs, stair-rods, or some other species, I can reassure you that such is just flowery talk and the reality is that The rain rains a rain of rain.

    And since you question my own authority, O impetuous ones, I will declare that I live in Wales, and that must surely settle the matter at once and for all.
  • andrewk
    1.6k
    It is possible that this thread has no philosophical content.
    :razz:
  • Baden
    6.8k


    Don't question @Hanover. He went to grammar school after all. Semper paratus. :smile:
  • Dawnstorm
    64
    Again, on my view, re semantics, terms mean, terms refer to whatever individuals consider them to mean/refer to. In other words, meaning is subjective. Contra Putnam, it is "just in the head."Terrapin Station

    I agree with this. But meaning in praxis, i.e. when you use "it" in "it is raining," is not quite the same as the meaning you assign in analysis. The latter can be adequate to the former or not. In other words, agreeing on what "It is raining," means is a lot easier than agreeing on the proper analysis of the component "it".

    So maybe you refer to something when you say "it" in "It is raining," and I don't; but this difference (should it exist) causes precious little problems for successful communication should either of us say that sentence.

    Beyond that, I'm not sure why you say that pronouns are indexical, if you think it's all in the head. I'll come out and say it: when I say "it" in "It is raining," I have no referent in mind. None whatsoever. When I say to you, "It's black with pink spots," you probably have no idea what I'm referring to. "It" is indexical, and you're not privy to the context (disclosure: there is no context - I made up a random sentence). When I say to you "It is raining," you probably have a good idea what I'm talking about, because all the information you need is in "is raining". Here "it" is not indexical; it's referentially empty and only fills a function. Please explain the difference in opaqueness of the sentences, if "it" is indexical in both sentences.

    If "it" were indexical in "It is raining," it would have a different meaning whenever you use the sentence, and I'd have to parse "it" first before I can understand the sentence, like in "It is black with pink spots." In fact, the general indexicality of pronouns is fairly good argument against the fact "it" in "it is raining," or "it is five o'clock", or similar sentences is referential. If it were, we couldn't fully understand the sentences until we figure out what "it" means (because the meaning of "it" would depend on the context of speaking).
  • Bitter Crank
    6.8k
    According to the dictionary, it means

    1. used to refer to a thing previously mentioned or easily identified.
    "a room with two beds in it"
    referring to an animal or child of unspecified sex.
    "she was holding the baby, cradling it and smiling into its face"
    referring to a fact or situation previously mentioned, known, or happening.
    "stop it, you're hurting me"
    2. used to identify a person.
    "it's me"
    3. used in the normal subject position in statements about time, distance, or weather.
    "it's half past five"
    4. used in the normal subject or object position when a more specific subject or object is given later in the sentence.
    "it is impossible to assess the problem"
    5. used to emphasize a following part of a sentence.
    "it is the child who is the victim"
    6. the situation or circumstances; things in general.
    "no one can stay here—it's too dangerous now"
    7. exactly what is needed or desired.
    "they thought they were it"
    8. INFORMAL
    sex appeal.
    "he's still got “it.”"
    sexual intercourse.
    9. INFORMAL
    denoting a person or thing that is exceptionally fashionable, popular, or successful at a particular time.
    "they were Hollywood's It couple"
    10. (in children's games) the player who has to catch the others.
  • Bitter Crank
    6.8k
    Let's go back to Proto Indo European (PIE)

    it (pron.)
    Old English hit, neuter nominative and accusative of third person singular pronoun, from Proto-Germanic demonstrative base *khi- (source also of Old Frisian hit, Dutch het, Gothic hita "it"), from PIE *ko- "this" (see he). Used in place of any neuter noun, hence, as gender faded in Middle English, it took on the meaning "thing or animal spoken about before."
    The h- was lost due to being in an unemphasized position, as in modern speech the h- in "give it to him," "ask her," is heard only "in the careful speech of the partially educated" [Weekley]. It "the sex act" is from 1610s; meaning "sex appeal (especially in a woman)" first attested 1904 in works of Rudyard Kipling, popularized 1927 as title of a book by Elinor Glyn, and by application of It Girl to silent-film star Clara Bow (1905-1965). In children's games, the meaning "the one who must tag or catch the others" is attested from 1842.
    From Old English as nominative of an impersonal verb or statement when the thing for which it stands is implied (it rains, it pleases me). After an intransitive verb, used transitively for the action denoted, from 1540s (originally in fight it out). That's it "there is no more" is from 1966; this is it "the anticipated or dreaded moment has arrived" is from 1942.
  • Bitter Crank
    6.8k
    it's referentially empty and only fills a function.Dawnstorm

    "It" from above, 3. used in the normal subject position in statements about time, distance, or weather.
    "it's half past five" or 5. used to emphasize a following part of a sentence.

    Again, on my view, re semantics, terms mean, terms refer to whatever individuals consider them to mean/refer to. In other words, meaning is subjective. Contra Putnam, it is "just in the head."Terrapin Station

    This makes me nervous. But it has good literary ancestry:

    “I don't know what you mean by 'glory,' " Alice said.
    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don't—till I tell you. I meant 'there's a nice knock-down argument for you!' "
    "But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument'," Alice objected.
    "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."
    "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
    "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master—that's all.”
    ― Lewis Carroll
  • Dawnstorm
    64
    "It" from above, 3. used in the normal subject position in statements about time, distance, or weather.
    "it's half past five" or 5. used to emphasize a following part of a sentence.
    Bitter Crank

    Yes, in those cases I say it's referentially empty and only fills a syntactic function. (Also in 2., 4., and 6., for what it's worth).
  • Terrapin Station
    5.2k


    "It" is indexical because the meaning depends on the context. "It" doesn't have a "fixed" meaning like "cat," say. Like all indexicals, the reference of the term can be completely different in different contexts, they function more like variables.
  • Dawnstorm
    64
    "It" is indexical because the meaning depends on the context. "It" doesn't have a "fixed" meaning like "cat," say. Like all indexicals, the reference of the term can be completely different in different contexts, they function more like variables.Terrapin Station

    I know that. But you don't need any context to parse "It is raining," correctly: "it" doesn't behave like the usual indexical "it" in this sentence.
  • Terrapin Station
    5.2k


    It does if you think about it that way.
  • Dawnstorm
    64
    It does if you think about it that way.Terrapin Station

    What way? I don't understand.
  • Terrapin Station
    5.2k


    What way? As an indexical. That's what we're talking about.
  • Dawnstorm
    64
    What way? As an indexical. That's what we're talking about.Terrapin Station

    But if "It" in "It's raining," were indexical, then you couldn't be arguing that "it" refers to the weather or anything, because you couldn't tell what it was referring to until you had a context.

    If I say, "He's a carpenter," then you know that someone's a carpenter, but you don't know who, if you lack context. How does "It's raining," remotely behave like that? That's what I don't understand.
  • Terrapin Station
    5.2k
    But if "It" in "It's raining," were indexical, then you couldn't be arguing that "it" refers to the weather or anything, because you couldn't tell what it was referring to until you had a context.Dawnstorm

    As I said (in my first post in this thread), ""What I'd normally take the subject to be in lieu of other information" In other words, I'm guessing the context based on the situation in which that sentence typically occurs.
  • Banno
    3.7k
    Not too bad for a silly question.
  • Dawnstorm
    64
    As I said, ""What I'd normally take the subject to be in lieu of other information"Terrapin Station

    If you have enough information to parse an expression without actual context, it's not indexical, though.
  • Terrapin Station
    5.2k


    Again, I'm guessing the context. It's context-dependent.
  • Herg
    92
    Maybe this conversation will help:

    A: What's the weather doing?
    B: It's raining.

    So 'it' refers to the weather.

    BTW, this is the funniest thread I've ever read in a philosophy forum. Thanks to everyone for making me laugh.
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