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Pronouns - Usage of Placeholder 'It'

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Pronouns - Usage of Placeholder 'It'  [#permalink]

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New post 08 Nov 2016, 02:31
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This is meant as an addition to the article on the usage of pronouns 'it/they' here -

http://gmatclub.com/forum/pronouns-usag ... l#p1757085

We have seen the general usage of ‘it’. Now let us look at one special usage of ‘it’ – the placeholder or the dummy ‘it’.

There are some rules that we must be aware of when dealing with ‘placeholders’.

Rule #1 – Placeholders must always refer to something on the GMAT.

For example – you will not find a sentence on the GMAT that says this – ‘It is snowing today’ (even though it is acceptable in common usage). In this sentence, ‘it’ does not have a clear referent.

The question - ‘What is snowing today?’ – has no clear answer.

Let us look at a sentence from GMATPrep:

Many entomologists say that campaigns to eradicate the fire ant in the United States have failed because the chemicals that were used were effective only in wiping out the ant’s natural enemies, thus making it easier for the ant to spread.

On the surface, it appears that ‘it’ has no logical referent. Look closely though – the ‘it’ refers to the infinitive phrase ‘to spread’.

Now, take a look at this sentence from GMATPrep:

As it is with traditional pharmacies, online drugstores rely on prescriptions to be successful, since it is primarily prescriptions that attract the customers, who then also buy other health-related items.


This sentence would be incorrect, as ‘it’ does not refer to anything. Nothing is with traditional pharmacies. However, the second ‘it’ is used correctly. It refers to ‘that attract the customers’.

Here is another example from GMATPrep:

Incorrect:
It can hardly be said that it is the fault of educators who have not anticipated the impact of microcomputer technology

Correct:
It can hardly be said that educators are at fault for not anticipating the impact of microcomputer technology

The first ‘it’ in both the clauses refer to the ‘that’ clause. The usage of second ‘it’ in the first sentence is incorrect, as it does not refer to anything.

Rule #2 – Placeholder ‘it’ can be used to refer to an infinitive phrase.
The basic structure of this construction would be:

‘It’ + something + to + verb.

For example:

The humid climate in Mangalore makes it quite difficult to work outdoors.

In this sentence, the ‘it’ refers to ‘to work outdoors’.

Let us look at an example from GMAT -

It was possible for a group of scientists to reconstruct the history of precipitation in tropical South America over the past 25,000 years.

What does ‘it’ refer to in this sentence? ‘it’ refers to the infinitive phrase – ‘to reconstruct the history of precipitation in tropical South America over the past 25,000 years’.

Note that we can rewrite this sentence with the infinitive phrase as the subject.

To reconstruct the history of precipitation in tropical South America over the past 25,000 years was possible for a group of scientists.

Rule #3 – Placeholder ‘it’ can refer to a that/who/whether clause/object.

In this case the basic structure of the construction would be:

It + something + that/who + clause.

For example:

It is a well-known fact that the Planet Mars does not support life.

The ‘it’ in this sentence refers to ‘that the Planet Mars does not support life’.
Let us now look at an example from GMATPrep:

It is unclear whether chimpanzees are unique among nonhuman species in their ability to learn behaviors from one another, or whether other animals would exhibit similar patterns if they were studied in as much depth.

‘It’ in this example refers to ‘whether chimpanzees are unique among nonhuman species in their ability to learn behaviors from one another …’

Note that we can rewrite this sentence with ‘whether chimpanzees are unique …’ as the subject.

However, it is not necessary that the that/who must be followed by a clause. (Hey! Even the previous sentence followed the rule.)

For example:

It was Chanakya who orchestrated the downfall of the Maurya Empire.

In this example – the placeholder ‘it’ refers to ‘who orchestrated the downfall of the Maurya Empire’.


Putting it all together

With these rules in mind, let us look at a GMATPrep problem:

It was only after Katharine Graham became publisher of The Washington Post in 1963 that it moved into the first rank of American newspapers, and it was under her command that the paper won high praise for its unrelenting reporting of the Watergate scandal.

A. It was only after Katharine Graham became publisher of The Washington Post in 1963 that it moved into the first rank of American newspapers, and it was under her command that the paper won high praise
B. It was only after Katharine Graham's becoming publisher of The Washington Post in 1963 that it moved into the first rank of American newspaper, and under her command it had won high praise
C. Katharine Graham became publisher of The Washington Post in 1963, and only after that did it move into the first rank of American newspapers, having won high praise under her command
D. Moving into the first rank of American newspaper only after Katharine Graham became its publisher in 1963, The Washington Post, winning high praise under her command
E. Moving into the first rank of American newspapers only after Katharine Graham's becoming its publisher in 1963, The Washington Post won high praise under her command

Let us analyze option A – What does the first ‘it’ refer to? The first ‘it’ is a placeholder that refers to ‘that it moved into the first rank of American newspapers’. (Rule #2).

Then, you ask me, what does the second ‘it’ refer to? The second ‘it’ refers to ‘the Washington Post’. But then you say, how can ‘it’ refer to two different things in a sentence. Notice that the second ‘it’ is part of a new clause ‘that it moved into the first rank …’. So, we know that this construction is all right on the GMAT.

The third ‘it’, similarly, refers to ‘that the paper won high praise’. Now that I have sorted out all the “it”s in this option, I do not see any problems with A.

Let us move on to option B. I immediately spot the ‘had won’ – this seems unnecessary to me as this option suggests that the paper won high praise before she became the editor!

I move on to option C – hmmm, an –ing modifier at the end. Let me see if it makes sense. ‘having won high praise …’ must modify the subject of the preceding clause. I do not see Washington Post as the subject. Eliminate C. D seems to sentence fragment, if we eliminate the non-essential modifiers.

I am left with A and E. “Katherine Graham’s becoming” just sounds horribly awkward to me. Should I eliminate E then?

Wait a minute; I know that GMAT tricks test takers into thinking that awkward answers are incorrect. Let me see if there are other errors with E. I know that –ing modifiers must make sense when they are combined with a main clause.

For example:
“Wearing a blue shirt, Arun taught Sentence Correction.”

This sentence does not make any sense. Arun’s wearing a blue shirt has no bearing on how he taught Sentence Correction. Similarly, “moving into the first rank ...” has no bearing on how the paper won high praise for its coverage of Watergate Scandal.

Another rule that we need to keep in mind is that –ing suggest contemporaneous actions (Psst.. we will be discussing this in detail in a future blog). We know that Watergate Scandal happened during the Nixon administration, many years after 1963. Eliminate E.

A is the correct answer.

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Pronouns - Usage of Placeholder 'It'  [#permalink]

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New post 08 Apr 2018, 23:33
CrackVerbalGMAT
Thanks a lot for this detailed discussion. Just to have a better understanding I would like to take one example -
Schliemann determined at the age of seven to find the site of ancient Troy and devoted his subsequent career to do it.

As per my understanding this "IT" acts as a place holder, referring to " to find the site of ancient Troy", and this sentence is correct.
Please correct me if I am wrong.
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kudos please if it helped you.

Pronouns - Usage of Placeholder 'It' &nbs [#permalink] 08 Apr 2018, 23:33
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