A rather silly word is it:
Short, insignificant; should it sit
Down on a park bench next to you
You’d barely grunt a gruff ‘How do?’
Just two small letters, both of ’em thin;
Not gleaming gold but tatty old tin,
At least, as it were, on the face of it—
But there’s so much more, my friends, to it.
This little ditty therefore gives
The story of this word—which lives
A range of different, varied lives:
Of which this poem will cover five.
But, caveat, reader: perhaps you see
The sequence <-it-> in stanza three,
Line 1 appears twice! But what
Of that? The written <-it-> is not
Of any interest in this piece
Of poetry; the lexeme is
The sole and only focus: it
Is what this poem is getting at.
So let’s start easy; textbooks read
That it’s a pronoun, used instead
Of any neuter entity
Like ‘Here’s my cat. It’s called Big C.’
Or ‘Where, then, should I put it, sir?’
Said of beer; and ‘Put it there’
Is an entirely ap-pro-pri-ate
Response—which also uses it.
So it’s a pronoun anaphoric.
At the risk of appearing histrionic,
It isn’t quite that monochrome;
And though a weighty leather tome
May not be needed to unpack
The tale of it, let’s not draw back
From telling its truth in form poetic:
See: it’s also cataphoric!
‘It’s very sharp, this piece of glass;
It’s very dark, that underpass’.
Though chilling in their dark purport
These examples show we ought
To know that it’s a designator
For things that come before and later
In the clause or utterance;
We’ve now begun our (sk)ittish dance!
So let’s dance on, and here’s the rub:
It is far from a lonely, drab
And boring pronoun; see it live
Another life ... as expletive!
‘It’s possible ...’; ‘It’s likely that ...’
‘It’s time to drown our dying cat.’
Something’s strange here; something’s funny:
It refers not! It’s a dummy!
Dummy pronoun, as it’s called
(But what it’s pro for, I’m not sure).
It’s other name is expletive:
It’s in the clause but doesn’t give
Us much in terms of what it means.
Consider that old gem ‘It seems ...’
Which Chomsky analysed as raising
(To which all I can say’s, ‘Amazing!’1
But like old referential it
Which we went through above, a bit,
This expletive is Janus-faced:
To call it one thing is misplaced.
So we turn to yet another name
Who’s not achieved old Chomsky’s fame
Or global recognition—yet
Had a good analysis of it:
1907 to ’92,
Prof of Ling. at Harvard U.,2
That late linguistic forager:
It’s Dwight Le Merton Bolinger!
In nineteen hundred and seventy three
(When the UK joined the EEC)
He wrote a nine-page article
Called ‘Ambient It
Here Bolinger claims that dummy it
Can carry some meaning, just a bit,
And takes it from the context. So in,
‘It’s hot here’ and ‘It’s time to go in’
It’s not strictly expletive
But holds some meaning from and with
The ambience; in ‘It’s time to go,’
It could mean, for example, ‘Now’.
I’m not sure I’ve communicated
Everything that Prof B stated;
It’s not that easy in poem-form
To summarise a complex swarm
Of arguments and bits of data
My suggestion, reader, is why not, later,
Find the paper; give it a read,
Straight from the horse’s mouth? Agreed?
So now we’ve got four it-s to ponder:
Two referential, two dummy! Wonder
Fills my mind to overdrive.
But there’s another; number 5!
What’s the fifth (with which we’ll end)?
‘I’ve been SpecGramming it all weekend.’
There’s an example: as you see
A nominal (‘SpecGram’) becomes a V
By sticking little it on the end!
My mind goes screaming round the bend:
How can this two-letter lexeme be
So complex? Enter CxG!
(Which, as I’m sure y’already knew,’s
A well established term; some news
If your mind’s as dull as a blunt sledgehammer:
CxG’s ‘Construction Grammar’.)
Ah the constructicon! For Goldberg fanatics
A construction’s a morpheme or a schematic
String of lexemes; it covers it all
‘It’s constructions all the way down’, says Adele.4
And our example, some stanzas ago,
Is a great example, which clearly shows
That the lexeme it’s non-compositional,
Nor’s its meaning remotely positional;
It’s just a kind of grammatical idiom.
So! Like the isotopes of He (helium)
It has several different faces,
It runs different speeds in different races;
What an amazing lexeme-ette!
So next time you see it, around and about,
Don’t simply grunt a guff ‘How do?’
It’s an amazing superhu-
-man piece of linguistic excellence,
Dancing its five-beat excellent dance:
An uber tool in the syntax-kit
We’ve been at it—and itting it; now: that’s it!
You might take this as honesty;
It may be meant sarcastically.
Let’s leave it there, ambiguous—
And move along with no more fuss.
By design or happenstance
He was ‘Professor of Romance
Languages and Literatures’
But my four-line verse prefers
The ‘Prof of Ling’-form; though it’s fiction,
It fits well in the line’s construction.
I recognise this isn’t right
Although it scans: I’m sorry, Dwight!
Another lie! Professor B,
Your article of ’73
Was ‘Ambient It is Meaningful TOO’
But this doesn’t rhyme with ‘articoo[l]’.
Adele’s a singer from London town
Who never sang, ‘ ’Tructions all the way down!’
This Adele (Goldberg; born ’63)
Is a Princeton Professor of CxG.