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In the context of this ELL question asking about using pronoun "it" as an object, it struck me that whereas it's perfectly natural to place heavy stress for emphasis on the "demonstrative determiner" in...

1: Yes, I know that, but not the other thing
...and we can do the same with a personal pronoun such as...
2: Yes, I know him, but not his wife

...it seems to be impossible to idiomatically stress whatever kind of pronoun we call "it" in...

3: Yes, I know it, but [caveat]

Is there some simple principle involved here? Or is it "just one of those things"?

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    Interesting question. We have “this or that”, “him or her”, but what goes with “it”? In your examples, the emphasis seems to me to need something to contrast.
    – ColleenV
    Jan 27 at 12:33
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    @ColleenV: I think the restrictions on stressing it may have something to do with the fact that it's not very "particular". Which may or may not be connected to the fact that we can't normally place possessive its at the end of an utterance (whether heavily stressed or not). So You can pat her head, but not his is fine, but we can't include that kind of stress in This is a cat. You can pat your dog's head, but not its. Jan 27 at 12:40
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    I have the impression that "Yes, I know it" would have been idiomatic a few centuries ago when today we would say either "I know" or "I know that". Jan 27 at 13:12
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    I disagree that it can't be stressed. Any word in any utterance can be stressed in English: I know it. //I know it.//I know it. And it will add to meaning or lessen its blow, as it were. "stress" on words in English is a speaker's choice....not something in the dictionary. You can prolong the sound of it, thereby stressing it.
    – Lambie
    Jan 27 at 15:14
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    How about this example of stressing "it"... "You spend too much time fixing up your car. Sometimes I think you love it more than you love me!"
    – ColleenV
    Jan 27 at 18:30

6 Answers 6

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Aside from the fascinating history of "h" enunciation, I think the primary reasons that "it" seems less common as a candidate for a contextual stress that discriminates one pronoun from another is more practical than linguistic. As you suggest yourself, "it's not very 'particular.'" This and that are inherently suited to compare and contrast, but "it" simply identifies. I'm not sure I agree with your underlying perception, either; I think it's just that we find ourselves less often in a position to compare an "it" to an other, but it's not inconceivable.

How do you feel about Smith and his book?
Oh, I like him well enough, but I can't abide it.

But when comparing two "its," perhaps we seldom perform GEdgar's proposed pantomime of pointing to "it, not it," because this and that would be so much handier.

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    There's a lot of interesting stuff in fev's excellent answer above, but when the chips are down I think your "not inconceivable" example nails it for me. Demonstrative pronouns like this and that are naturally suited to most "compare and contrast" contexts where we want to lay heavy stress on one or both referents. It's just that suitable contexts for treating it the same way are few and far between. Whatever - I've upvoted both these answers, but unless anything else turns up in the next day or two, I'd have to say yours addressed my concerns more succinctly and precisely. Jan 27 at 15:57
  • @FumbleFingers I actually tried to formulate a contrived example for "it, not it," relying on having to clarify an earlier sentence that had used "it," but couldn't fabricate something remotely plausible! Jan 27 at 16:23
  • @FumbleFingers Perhaps the closest might be a situation of temporary loss of articulacy, as in the immortal words from The Princess Bride: "Move the thing! And... the other thing!" E.g. "Move... it!" "Move what, the tiller?" "No, not it, you know—*it*!" But obviously, it's a stretch. Jan 27 at 16:26
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    Indeed. That Princess Bride example looks a bit too much like an artificial "use / mention" context, so it doesn't really hit the spot anyway. But even though your Smith = him, his book = it version is slightly "odd", it's easily enough to convince me that "suitable context" is at least as relevant as any syntactic or semantic considerations here. Jan 27 at 16:42
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Intriguing question. Looking into it I found some interesting facts. Wikipedia says:

Old English had a single third-person pronoun hit and was used for both people and objects (inanimate or abstract). In the 12th century, it started to separate and appear without an h. The hit form continued well into the 16th century In Modern English but had disappeared before the 17th in formal written English. Genitive its appeared in the later 16th century and had taken over by the middle of the 17th, by which time it had its modern form.

The following sentence is interesting

"Hit" remains in some dialects in stressed positions only; some dialects also use "it", not "its", as a possessive.

So that implies that there WERE cases of stressed HIT in the past.

AHD confirms this saying

In some American vernacular dialects, speakers may pronounce it as hit in stressed positions, especially at the beginning of a sentence, as in

  • Hit's cold out here!

This pronunciation is called a relic dialect feature because it represents the retention of an older English form. In fact, hit is the original form of the third person singular neuter pronoun and thus can be traced to the beginnings of the Old English period (c. 449-1100). Early in the history of English, speakers began to drop the h from hit, particularly in unaccented positions, as in

  • I saw it yesterday.

Gradually, h also came to be lost in accented positions, although hit persisted in socially prestigious speech well into the Elizabethan period. Some relatively isolated dialects in Great Britain and the United States have retained h, since linguistic innovations such as the dropping of h are often slow to reach isolated areas. But even in such places, h tends to be retained only in accented words. Thus, we might hear

  • Hit's the one I want

side by side with

  • I took it back to the store.

Nowadays, hit is fading even in the most isolated dialect communities and occurs primarily among older speakers. This loss of h reflects a longstanding tendency among speakers of English to omit h's in unaccented words, particularly pronouns, such as 'er and 'im for her and him, as in

  • I told 'er to meet me outside.

This kind of h-loss is widespread in casual speech today, even though it is not reflected in spelling.

Now I know that this is very linked with pronunciation, but English does stress words, including pronouns, through intonation or change of pitch:

Stressing personal pronouns often emphasizes that one person or persons is being contrasted with another. A change in pitch often accompanies the pronoun that has been brought into focus through stress. When this happens, the overall rhythm and intonation of the sentence changes, sometimes significantly. (source)

So, the fact that modern it lost the h, might indicate that it simply ceased being used in stressed positions in the process. Why that is would definitely be interesting to know... Could it be related to our inherent understanding of the superiority of persons over inanimate objects?

Addition: The way demonstratives behave with phrasal verbs (sorry for those who do not agree with this term), may shed some light:

Q: If I start a plant indoors and then move it outside, I can say either “I will harden off the plant” or “I will harden the plant off.But if I use a pronoun, I can only say “I will harden it off,” not “I will harden off it.” What’s going on here?

A: When this kind of phrasal verb has an object, and the object is a noun, the noun can go either in the middle of the phrase (“harden the seedlings off”) or at the end (“harden off the seedlings”).

But if the object is a personal pronoun, it has to go in the middle (“harden them off”), not at the end (“harden off them”).

(We should add that while personal pronouns can’t go at the end, demonstrative pronouns can: “this,” “that,” “these,” “those.” Nobody blinks when we say things like “Did you harden off those?” or “Please hand out these.”) (grammarphobia)

Conclusion? Yes, demonstrative pronouns are obviously stronger candidates for stressed uses than any personal pronoun, let alone it.

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  • I'm pretty sure that somewhere we have a question asking why the corresponding genitive, its, is fairly uncommon as a stressed pronoun, at least compared with mine, thine, his, hers, yours, theirs.
    – tchrist
    Jan 27 at 14:01
  • @tchrist ... which is also FFingers' intuition expressed in the comments.
    – fev
    Jan 27 at 14:13
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    @Lambie It's a gardener-specific idiom, but it is one. Jan 27 at 14:58
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    @Lambie It's a specialized usage, it may be regional as well, but it's definitely harden off and never harden up when used in this context. Collins Dictionary has it ( collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/harden-off ) and you can find it defined in, e.g., gardening magazines, gardening sections of news papers, plant vendors, agricultural extensions of universities or governments... extension.psu.edu/hardening-transplants Jan 28 at 17:09
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    @terdon - not comparable. Forgive my horrible lack of technical knowhow but as spoken: "she's ill" (almost always pronounced "she zill" - the initial I gets merged into the MIDDLE of a sound) and "I know it" (NOT really pronounced "Know wit", the initial I remains FIRST letter). How do comparable phrases work, such as "I saw it/held it/remember it/touched it". And, "I know ink". Those might be revealing?
    – Stilez
    Jan 28 at 17:39
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The word "it" usually isn't the subject of emphasis in the sentences in which it is used. However, it is possible to come up with situations where "it" is actually the word emphasized, even in common, modern speech:

When "this" or "that" are already used

"That's IT! You solved the mystery."

"This is IT! The chance we were waiting for!"

When "it" is specifically highlighted to point out a mistake

"Yuck, it's trying to eat me." "Excuse me, IT happens to be my baby boy, and he's trying to suck your finger."

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    When "it" is a euphemism, "Did you and your boyfriend do it?" "Did we do what?" "You know... IT." Jan 28 at 17:26
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    @user3067860 "nope, in our bed we only do THAT." (this is a joke)
    – user253751
    Jan 29 at 11:46
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Your examples are similar in nature to passives, which sometimes may specify an agent with the preposition "by", and sometimes may not. The times when this is not possible are the same as the times when "it" doesn't work in your examples.

Consider for example,

A new book on the topic is being prepared by well-known author Smeghead Johnson, who for the fourth year running has been nominated for the Best-Smelling Optician of the Year Award.

works much better than

A new book on the topic is being prepared by me.

This latter sentence seems very strange. It is because in that locus (i.e., the nounphrase or pronoun governed by "by"), you expect something salient. Salient could mean "new information", something the phrase itself is introducing to the discussion.

As a rule, pronouns are less salient than noun phrases, because their antecedents are agreed and known. This certainly holds for "me" and "it". The only times it's possible to use these words are when we already agree on who or what they refer to.

"This", "that", "here", the interrogatives like "how", etc. are more salient than that. This is because they contrast with each other, and they point things out more. and so on. So they are less restricted in where they may be placed (they are more likely to be fronted, or uttered in isolation, etc. etc.)

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  • I've long been familiar with Grice's Maxims, so I can easily see how "The maxim of relation" could be said to reference "salience" as an attribute at the level of complete utterances. But you've introduced me to the new and interesting concept of salience as an attribute of individual words / expressions [as used within an utterance]. Many thanks for that! Jan 28 at 12:25
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    @FumbleFingers Oh, it's the tip of the iceberg. Some languages (Greenlandic, Navajo) even have different verbal conjugations depending on if something's salient or obviative.
    – OmarL
    Jan 28 at 12:31
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    I knew even as I wrote the words above that I should have said ...new to me [and interesting to potentially anyone] lol :) Jan 28 at 12:35
  • @OmarL My favorite situation is languages like (I believe) Cree, in which the most salient (or "proximate") noun in an utterance is unmarked, and all other ("obviate") nouns carry mandatory grammatical marking. This allows a proximate noun, usually a person, to be introduced once and left implicit until another explicit proximate noun shows up.
    – Andrew Ray
    Jan 28 at 20:17
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It is a question of "content clauses".

A: “The red piece goes on top of the green piece.

B: Yes, I know that, but where does the yellow one go?”

= B: Yes, I know that the red piece goes on top of the green piece, but where does the yellow one go?”

that the red piece goes on top of the green piece, is a content clause. It tells us the content of what is known.

You will see that, in Yes, I know that the pronoun that is a short/pronoun version of a content clause.

A content clause is a noun clause and thus can be replaced with a pronoun. However, the pronoun is usually a demonstrative pronoun such that it refers back (in this case) to the last spoken statement.

Compare: The red piece is heavy. I know this (i.e. that it is heavy), but you say that the yellow piece is light: you have not weighed the yellow piece so how do you know that (that it is light)?

However, where there is no content clause:

A: How did you know the meaning of that word?

B: I don’t know – I just knew it. (it = the meaning)

a simple pronoun is used.

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  • "I know it" does not suddenly become idiomatic because the stand in is no longer a clause instead of a lone noun. "The answer is 42" / "I know the answer" | "The answer is 42" / "I know that" | "The answer is 42" / "I know it" Jan 28 at 21:39
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It would be unusual to say "I know it" as a response to an idea or suggestion instead of "I know that" (common), "I know this" (unusual, but not as rare as "it") or even simply "I know," (also common).

This is more the reason this stands out than choosing to stress 'it,' as a native English speaker that word just 'feels' out of place in that sentence - it's not grammatically incorrect, it's just not the idiom.

In addition, there is also the fact that 'it' is rarely stressed in sentences in which it is typically used - this has to do with 'it' having a general connotation of neutrality.

"This" implies nearness, "That" implies distance, but "it" is usually selected specifically because it lacks an implication - it'd be like stressing your lack of reaction to something, which is sort of inherently awkward.

There are a few instances where one might stress "it" as an insult when referring to a person or animal - in this case the stress implies a profound lack of regard. This is considered rude or even hateful if a person is the subject, as it implies you consider them less than human, so I would strongly recommend not doing this.

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  • Maybe "I know it" is not common, but I knew it! certainly is.
    – fev
    Jan 28 at 20:11
  • @fev True! I think there is some concept hiding in there about conversational pronoun use, like under what conditions you get to use a given pronoun when you're the person who introduces the subject to the conversation vs. when it was someone else, but it all seems very fuzzy and I'm not aware of any formal encoding of those "rules." Jan 28 at 21:22
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    @IIron Gremlin We are all splitting hairs here clearly, but I find it fascinating! It's amazing to feel the pulse of a language even if somewhat "blindly"...
    – fev
    Jan 28 at 21:26

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