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Ambient it is meaningful too

  • Dwight Bolinger (a1)


In one of the many insightful passages in his Meaning and the structure of language (Chafe, 1970), Wallace Chafe characterizes sentences like It's hot, It's late, and It's Tuesday as referring to ‘all-encompassing states’. ‘They cover,’ he says, ‘the total environment, not just some object within it’ (101). His treatment, in common with most others – but in his case partly because of the centrality of the verb in his System – denies any value to it: ‘it need not reflect anything at all in the semantic structure’. I believe that the notion of ambience is correct, though that of totality must be qualified; but I think that not only is it more than an empty surface element: it has as its referent precisely the ‘environment’ that is central to the whole idea. There is a hint of this notion in a recent observation by Arthur Schwartz (1972: 70–71) concerning it seems: ‘the surface it is not really a pronominal substitute for the proposition, but closer to the impersonal situational it of It is cold today or It is crowded in here’.



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Bolinger, D. L. (1961). Syntactic blends and other matters. Lg 37. 366381.
Bolinger, D. L. (1970). The lexical value of it. Working papers in linguistics (University of Hawaii) 2:8. 5776.
Chafe, W. L. (1970). Meaning and the structure of language, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Schwartz, A. (1972). Constraints on movement transformations. JL 8. 3585.


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