The concept of dummy pronoun is very natural to English speakers (or many other European-language speakers). However in many other languages there is no dummy pronoun. In this post we are going to discuss the necessity of dummy pronouns and how they work.
What is a dummy pronoun?
A dummy pronoun is a pronoun that is only present to fulfill the syntactic or grammatical requirements of a sentence. Other pronouns, in contrast, always have a meaning or grammatical contribution to the sentence.
Dummy pronouns are usually used as a subject or object to a sentence. Take a look at the following examples:
It is raining.
You can make it.
In the first example ‘it’ as a dummy pronoun is playing the role of subject in the sentence. (as this sentence does not need a real subject in English). In the second sentence the dummy pronoun acts as the object of the sentence (because the verb ‘make’ is transitive and needs an object)
What do other languages do?
My mother tongue ,Persian, does not have the concept of dummy pronouns. I will show you how we say the same sentences in Farsi in a few examples:
It is cold.
There are two ways to express the same notion in Persian:
1- The air is cold. (هوا سرد است)
2- is cold (سرده)
The first one sounds very simple and natural (to be honest I wonder why they don’t do it the same way in English). The second one on the other hand is a feature that is not possible in English syntax. In Persian when using a ‘predicate adjective’ we do not need a subject. We can simply use the adjective with the conjugated form of the verb ‘be’.
There are two apples on the table.
Here the pronoun ‘there’ is a dummy pronoun used to show the presence of an object. Persian does not have the same structure. In order to express the same sense we use the object of this sentence as the subject like this:
Two apples are on the table.
This works fine in the example above but in some cases the sense of the sentence is somehow impaired through translation:
There have been a lot of accidents on this road.
The best way to express the same sense in Persian would be:
A lot of accidents happened on this road.
Which is to some extent different from the original sentence.
For many other cases we add a meaningless word to act as the subject or object. I do not write examples of those cases because they are not properly translatable.
Where exactly are dummy pronouns used?
English has lost a lot of its original features like conjugation and although it may seem to have made this language simpler, it made it easier for sentences to become ambiguous. In order to make the sentences understandable in all cases more grammatical rules have to be added which resulted in some of the strange features in English language. Although dummy pronouns are present in many of the European languages their use in English is far more sophisticated.
The most important reason is it is impossible to distinguish a simple imperative sentence from a subject-less indicative sentence, so using a dummy pronoun is vital to the integrity of the sentence.