To be accurate, it's not the words themselves that are special; it's how they're sometimes used. Linguists have assigned names to these distinctive (and sometimes controversial) ways of using six very common words: it, there, should, be, they, and eh.
For additional examples and more detailed discussions of the terms, follow the links in bold.
- Dummy "It"
Unlike an ordinary pronoun, dummy "it" refers to nothing at all. In sentences about time and weather (e.g., It's six o'clock, It's snowing) and in certain idioms (It's obvious you're having a hard time), it serves as an anticipatory or dummy subject.
- Existential "There"
Another familiar type of dummy subject is the existential "there." In contrast to the deictic "there," which refers to a place (e.g., Let's sit over there), the nonreferential "there" simply points out the existence of something (There is a problem with the network).
- Putative "Should"
Unlike the mandative "should," which expresses a command or recommendation (e.g., You should stop complaining), the putative "should" emphasizes an emotional response to a presumed fact (It's sad you should feel that way). Putative "should" is heard more often in British English than in American English.
- Invariant "Be"
A feature of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), invariant "be" is often misinterpreted as an all-purpose substitute for "am," "is" and "are." In fact, because invariant "be" (as in She be busy all the time) has the special function of marking habitual or repeated activities, AAVE makes a distinction that Standard English can't make by verb tense alone. (See No Time Like the Present Tense.)
- Singular "They"
Most handbooks still decry the use of they, them, or their to refer to a singular noun or an indefinite pronoun (e.g., Somebody lost their keys). But this is probably a losing battle: singular "they" has been in widespread use since the fourteenth century.
- Narrative "Eh"
Though strongly associated with speakers of Canadian English, narrative "eh" isn't exclusively Canadian. This little discourse marker or tag (described by one linguist as "virtually meaningless") most often shows up at the end of a sentence--like this, eh?
Quizzes on Words and Names: