March 30, 2021

"It's Covid Outside" - Mysterious Syntax of Weather Covid

I wanted to post about a novel construction I've noticed throughout all of last year, which is 'it's covid.' Perhaps you've seen it too? 'Covid' is behaving similarly to weather.

"I would have gone to the fabric store, but it's covid outside."

"We had to stop having parties because it's covid."

"It's the holiday time, but it's covid." "Because it's covid."

Look up "it's covid outside" on Twitter and you'll find a number of people using the expression unironically.

There have been people noting the weather-ness of COVID:

Moms in 2019: Don't forget your scarf it's cold outside.
Moms in 2020: Don't forget your mask, it's covid outside.
Source

We can easily replace all of these with weather words: "it's raining, it's sunny, it's snowing." Not all weather-related words are used in this way, though: "it's hailing" and "it's sleeting" do not sound natural, though they aren't ungrammatical.

"Covid" still doesn't take all the characteristics of a weather word, though. For one thing, although you can say "it's often sunny outside," you can't say *"it's often covid outside." It just sounds ungrammatical.

So "covid" is not behaving like an adjective, like "sunny." What about a verb? Let's compare "covid" constructions with other "Weather IT" constructions. Weather verbs behave specially with it.

  • "It somestimes rains after snowing."
  • *"It sometimes COVIDs after snowing."
  • *"It sometimes rains after Covid/coviding."

Hmm, not that either. Much like how "covid" normally behaves, it seems like it's a noun. But if it's a noun, why can we say "it's covid outside"? We don't say *"it's volcano outside". "Covid" is taking on aspects of an adjective in being able to be modified by "outside." But it's not totally an adjective, because we can't say *"it's often covid outside."

I end with a question - what is going on with this construction? Are there similar ones out there (e.g. "It's orange fog outside")? A random search shows that there is a very rare form, "it's fire outside" for "there's a fire outside" (source).

4 comments:

  1. David MarjanovićMarch 30, 2021 at 11:23 AM

    you can't say *"it's often covid outside." It just sounds ungrammatical.

    I'm sure it is grammatical if "it's covid outside" is grammatical to begin with. It's just never been true. COVID-19 has never left.

    In German, BTW, we do say "it's hailing": es hagelt, es graupelt. But I've never seen that extended beyond the weather.

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    1. I thought there might be a semantic limitation - I can't imagine a real world situation where COVID levels vary depending on the day. Imagining it with fire or fog is easier, but still questionable: ?"it's often fire outside in San Francisco", ?"it's often fog outside in London."

      I wish I knew more to be able to look it up, but I think there's some sort of snowclone thing going on in colloquial (and especially internet-influenced) English where it's easy to sub in nouns in certain common phrases, but there's not support for fully using the noun.

      It's not quite the same thing, but the because X construction in online English comes to mind. By far, the most common use of "because X" is at the end of a sentence, with a simple noun phrase. The farther you get from this formula, the more ungrammatical it sounds.

      "I stayed up all night, because internet."
      *"Because internet, I stayed up all night."
      "I stayed up all night, because new merch."
      ?"I stayed up all night, because new merch dropping on the store."

      Both these constructions ("it's covid outside", "because X") are very "online English" constructions, somewhat humorous, and not commonly used in spoken English (though I think "because X" is gaining some ground).

      In German, BTW, we do say "it's hailing": es hagelt, es graupelt. But I've never seen that extended beyond the weather.

      Interesting! I wonder what it'd look like if you compared the commonly used weather constructions among languages. I imagine "rain" and "snow" (where weather permits) would be common, but hail? I looked it up and you can say "it's hailing" in Spanish, esta granizando, though I've never encountered that construction in real life. Probably because I've only ever found hail after it's already fallen. :)

      Speaking of, I found some examples of "it's hail outside" on Google... but it seems very rare.

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  2. Hail is common in parts of the Canadian province of Alberta, and I, an Albertan, don't consider "it's hailing" to sound unnatural. I'm sure I hear "it's hailing" from a family member or friend at least a few times every summer.

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    1. Interesting to note! I don't come from a hailing region, so "it's hailing" definitely sounds a little odd (though understandable) to me.

      The post from the ELL Stack Exchange I quoted has someone from a place where it hails finding the form 'it hailed outside' to be marked, so there may be a difference in acceptability depending on region.

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