When we ask What’s this?/What are these?What’s that?/What are those? we answer It is (It’s) or They are (They’re).

e,g. What's this/that? [b]It's[/b] an umbrella.

I have a question:  Can the pronoun [i]it[/i] be used to talk about people? I can't think of a scenario where it can be used to talk about people. Could anyone give me a few examples please?


I think this will justify the use:
F: Who was on the phone?
A: It was my brother.

This ‘it’ is simply an introductory/anticipatory 'it’and pays no attention to whether people or things.

Some politicians claim more money for expenses than they should. It is people like that who give politics a bad name.


***** NOT A TEACHER *****

If you want to believe a certain scholar, there are three types of introductory “it.”


a. “It is fun to study Greek.” / “It is absurd that he stole the cake.” / It is not known whether he was the culprit or not."

i. The real subjects are “to study Greek,” “that he stole the cake,” and “whether he was the culprit or not.”


a. “It’s a hot day.” / “It’s time to go in.” / “It’s going to snow.”

i. The word “it” has no meaning.
ii. The word “it” simply “satisfies our feeling that a verb in a declarative sentence should have a subject.”

  1. SITUATION “IT” [Maybe this is the “it” that you are looking for.]

a. “It was Sam that I saw.” / “It’s Myron who will get into trouble about it.” / "“Was it Sam that you saw?”

i. The scholar says that the situation “it” differs from the impersonal “it” because the situation “it” DOES have some meaning. The situation “it” points “forward to a noun which, however, is not yet sufficiently identified in the situation to be referred to by a personal pronoun.”

(a) The scholar admits the following: Sometimes it is difficult to tell situation “it” from impersonal “it.”

Source: Paul Roberts, Understanding Grammar (1954); Harper & Row, Publishers, New York, Evanston, and London.

Welcome, James, after a short spell. Thanks for your ‘sourced’ explanation, as most usual. My examples have triggered a good discussion. In fact I do agree on the observation I have highlighted in the quote. The ‘it’ is not a dummy one at all. Yes, it is difficult to identify its function for certain.

However, I justify it (to myself) this way:

Who was on the phone?
It (‘the one/the person who was on the phone’ or even ‘Who was on the phone’) was my brother.

Thank you all for your attention!

Yes, you are right! ))

  Dear James, can I use “He” in place of “It” in the sentences above?
Again can I say '[b]He[/b] was my brother' in such a situation?

I read somewhere a sentence like [i]It’s a baby[/i]. The reason that [i]it[/i] is used is a baby’s sex is unknown?

I’m afraid you can’t. There is no such suggestion in the question. The caller could be either male or female. Suppose the situation changes like this: There is a call for you; someone receives it and tells you that there is a guy/a gentleman/Mr X on the phone. You attend to that call and come back. Then the same ‘someone’ asks you, ‘Who was on the phone?’, and now you could possibly say that he was your brother.

I don’t think it is gender-related. It can only be ‘situational’ as James puts it.

***** NOT A TEACHER *****

[1] Anglophile, as usual, has done an excellent job in explaining Professor Roberts’s words.

Here is some information that may interest you.

a. In “It is Aunt Flo,” the situation “it” points to some noun not previously well enough identified to be referred to by a personal pronoun.

Professor Roberts tells us that in answer to “Did someone come in?,” we may say, “Yes, it’s Aunt Flo.”

But if the question is “Who is that woman?,” we MAY [my emphasis] say, “She is Aunt Flo.”

– Page 251 of the scholar’s book.

[2] Another scholar explains:

" ‘It’ can be used of a human being, especially a baby." / " ‘Hushed as a babe upon its mother’s breast.’ " – Byron [the famous poet].

" ‘It’ may also be said of an individual child, though, of course, the child’s parents or nurse will generally say ‘he’ or ‘she.’ "

Source: Otto Jespersen, ESSENTIALS OF ENGLISH GRAMMAR (1933).

And yet another (great) scholar says:

"[W]hen we speak of a little child or a small insect we do not think of personality or sex, and hence with reference to either child or insect employ the neuter pronoun ‘it’ and the possessive adjective ‘its.’ "

– George Oliver Curme, A GRAMMAR OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE (1931), Volume I, page 552.

Thank you very much for detailed and (as Mr Lawrence said) ‘sourced’ information. ))
You always do a great job in answering questions and I appreciate this!
Thank you, James!..

I thank YOU for asking questions that make me think and send me to my books.

If in the future, you teach English (either at a school or to your friends / colleagues), I know that you will do a wonderful job.