Question 1a: What does 'It' refer to in the following sentence:

  • It was clearly in the mood to place acknowledgements at the bottom of questions.

The context for the above sentence is provided in the next section.

Question 1b: What is the justification for choosing anaphoric or cataphoric? Same for selecting the antecedent/postcedent?

Question 1c: Is there any justification for choosing anaphoric with antecedent = "the community"?

Question #2: (Cognitive blindness due to unconscious parsing): There was an amazing (awesome, very interesting) misunderstanding between myself and another person (very well respected by me and the community on ell.se). I think there is a kind of cognitive blindness that occurs when people parse sentences different ways. We stick to our initial, unconscious cognitive parse which can prevent us from seeing other options. Is there a name for this? (See "Important Info" section, below.)

Note: Instead of EL&U, I thought linguistics would be a more appropriate forum for this question due (at least in part) to the cognitive issues. (I've just recently started exploring the fascinating Art & Science of Linguistics.)


On ell.stackexchange.com, I made an edit to the question "Is this sentence correct?". (And no, the sentence was not.) The OP thanked me by writing at the top of the question, "Credit to CoolHandLouis for edit help!" To make the acknowledgement less conspicuous (and to save me some embarrassment), I moved it to the bottom. The next day, a website that reports on writing style (www.AcmeStyleReports.com) posted an analysis of my "top to bottom" edit of the acknowledgement:

  • "The style used for acknowledgements can vary, depending on formality, precedents, and community-accepted norms. Consider the question on ell.se "Is this sentence correct?". An edit was made to move an acknowledgement from the top to the bottom.

    It can be argued that this was stylistically appropriate. On ell.se, the community has a tradition of putting acknowledgements at the end of questions. It was clearly in the mood to place acknowledgements at the bottom of questions."

The above is the entire context text. It's entirely fictional. (There is no such report and no tradition to put acknowledgements at the bottom.)

Important Info

  • This question is very closely related to the ell.se question, What role does this it take?

  • Question 1, Option 1 (Anaphoric):

    IT = "The community"

    ** The selected-as-correct opinion was that "It" is a simple pronoun referring to "the community". (It was "the Mafia" in What role does this it take?) The "mental parsing" is as follows:

    "The community was clearly in the mood to place acknowledgements at the bottom of questions."

  • Question 1, Option 2 (Cataphoric):

    IT = "to place acknowledgements at the bottom of the questions"

    ** This is called "Anticipatory It". In my "mental parsing", semantic information was dropped:

    "It was clearly in the mood [of the writing style on ell.se] to place acknowledgements at the bottom of questions."


    "It was clearly in the mood [of the community] to place acknowledgements at the bottom of questions."

  • Question 1, Option 3:

    "IT" = Whatever else you may think about the role of "it".

  • Question 2. Cognitive Blindness: Because of my mental parsing, I thought the selected-as-correct answer, "The Mafia", was an absurd "opinion" that utterly lacked any grammatical sense. I was blind! I did not and could not see "It" as a simple pronoun. Another very well-respected member could not see my "Anticipatory It" as having anything to do with this, because he only saw the simple pronoun construct. After a little debate in comments, we both had an "aha" realization of what we were each missing.

What role does this it take?

  • "It" refers to the phrase that comes later, "to place acknowledgements at the bottom of questions". Just like in "it was a nice day to go outside." I don't know what the term for these is though. By the way, you need to include the English tag in your question... OK one key term to look up is "cataphora" for a pronoun etc that refers to something that comes later rather than earlier as is the common case. Feb 23, 2014 at 0:56
  • That's "anticipatory it". (I've updated my question to make that more clear.) Yours is the same as my answer, which got downvoted to -1 in the original question on ell.se, so it cannot possibly be that. Feb 23, 2014 at 5:19
  • There's often lots of overlapping term for general cases and specific cases and definitely for English linguistics compared to linguistics generally. The example is not clear in the question title but hopefully in the more detailed question body will get you a good answer from somebody who knows the field and its jargon. Feb 23, 2014 at 6:45
  • Thank you @hippietrail. I have updated the title, and between the title and the first sentence, I think Question 1 should be crystal clear now. Feb 23, 2014 at 9:07
  • 1
    Ok thanks for the info @hippietrail, you did help me fix up the question! Feb 23, 2014 at 15:33

2 Answers 2


Of the two interpretations suggested in the question, I prefer the first. That is, upon my first reading of the example and the context in which it appears, I immediately concluded that the it is a standard anaphoric pronoun, referring back to the community. Only after reading the context and the alternative interpretation carefully was I able to get that second interpretation, i.e. with it as a cataphoric (or anticipatory) pronoun.

The cataphoric interpretation becomes obligatory for me if the example is changed a bit:

(1) It was clearly preferred to place the acknowledgements at the bottom of the question.

The cataphoric interpretation is now obligatory, the anaphoric interpretation no longer being available.

The "cataphoric" interpretation is associated with a concrete phenomenon of syntax that is sometimes called it-extraposition: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extraposition. It-extraposition is illustrated with the following pairs of sentences:

a. It was difficult to understand.

b. To understand was difficult.

a. It was important that they try.

b. That they try was important.

a. I believed it that they would try.

b. I believed that they would try.

These examples suggest the reach of the it-extraposition mechanism. The it appears in a standard argument position (subject, object) and the full clause or to-phrase is extraposed to the right periphery of the sentence. The phenomenon is extremely frequent and widespread.

The direct answer to the questions are as follows:

Question 1a: it refers more readily to the community; the anaphoric interpretation is dominant.

Question 1b: The anaphoric interpretation is dominant because for the alternative cataphoric interpretation to work, a predicate that licenses it-extraposition has to be present. The predicate in the mood reluctantly (at least for me) licenses it-extraposition (whereas the predicate preferred necessarily licenses it-extraposition). We can see that in the mood does not readily license it-extaposition because the following sentence seems dubious:

(2) ?To place the acknowledgements at the bottom of the question was clearly in the mood.

Question 1c: The anaphoric reading is motivated by the fact that in the mood does not generally license it-extraposition, which means that that the alternative, cataphoric reading is not readily available. With no clear alternative, the anaphoric intepretation is preferred.

Question 2: Incorrect parses that have to be corrected upon a closer reading are sometimes addressed in terms of a garden path. One is dealing with a garden path reading. A well-known example: The horse raced past the barn stumbled. The standard parse begins one way (on a garden path), but then it must be corrected when the end of the sentence is reached. Otherwise, the sentence makes no sense. In my view, the cataphoric reading is a garden path interpretation that can be corrected upon scrutiny. The realization that the predicate in the mood does not typically license it-extraposition (although I see that that interpretation is possible) should motivate the correction to the anaphoric reading.

  • Thank you for your analysis! Very nice. I think the key here, then, is the animacy of "in the mood" and in terms of further research on the topic I need to google: it-extraposition license Feb 23, 2014 at 21:23
  • I think orig. sentence is a bit dubious "It was in the mood to <dosomething>" due to contrast between low animacy of "It" vs high animacy of "in the mood". It's the same "license" issue, but it's staring us in the face. My mind prefers to resolve the local licence-animacy conflict with "It was in the mood of the community to <dosomething>" which forces it-extraposition. Other minds may "prefer" to delay or look elsewhere to resolve. It might just be a cognitive preference, like Myers-Brigs MBTI. Then there's no abstract "licence-justification"; The reader is part of the context, no? Feb 23, 2014 at 21:53
  • Another angle on this is, as a MyersBriggs INTP/Ni,Te (Introverted), I stay abstract so I think What was in the mood? The air? And I'm ok intuitively to "fill in details" by adding semantic meaning: "It was in the mood of the community to <do something>." While an ISTP may "look outside to the environment and use what is there" to find the answer, such as preferring to replace "It"="The Community" (which is also a possible interpretation). Either way, animacy of "The community" is collective consciousness. To eliminate that, "each person of the community". Now we're talking stochastics. Feb 23, 2014 at 22:32
  • Yes, "in the mood" is predicate that works best with an animate subject argument. I think, however, that the possibility of it-extraposition has only indirectly to do with animacy. It has to do, rather, directly with the ability of the given predicate to take a clause-like argument. When a clause-argument is possible, then so is it-extraposition, e.g. "To understand fully takes a lot of time" vs. "It takes a lot of time understand fully". Feb 23, 2014 at 22:39
  • Did you mean to-infinitive: to understand? "It takes a lot of time to understand fully"? That would be the proper it-extraposition transformation, i think. Otherwise I'm missing something. Feb 23, 2014 at 23:16

Adding to the previous answer: 'community' is a realis class noun and 'to place' is an event (infinite, abstract, irrealis) noun. 'It preferred ...' chooses the (anaphoric) class noun and 'It was preferred ...' chooses the (cataphoric) event noun.

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