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Today I was asked a question by a learner of german as a second language, to which I couldn’t find any useful answer.

We were reading the sentence „Sie müssen realisieren, mit welcher Herausforderung Sie es zu tun haben“. The learner did ask if and why the „es“ was necessary. I answered based on my intuition that leaving out the „es“ would seem somewhat wrong. But I couldn’t answer with certainty and was completely unable to explain the usage that this „es“ had in the given sentence.

I hope there are some grammar experts here, that can help me to give a more fulfilling answer to my friend.

Thanks in advance

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That "es" is in the meaning of "subject of speech" (dt: Gegenstand der Rede). You may try to exchange it with "(in) our certain situation" in your example. "Zu tun haben" ("to deal with") usually implies to include "es" ("it") in the prase. Though sometimes you can leave it out.

Grimms Wörterbuch notes (in the entry of "ES"):

"in einem andern wichtigeren fall läszt sich sagen, dasz das 'es' zugleich bestimmt und unbestimmt erscheine. dieser acc. insgemein kann zwar, ohne dasz ein subst. vorausgeht, worauf er sich unmittelbar bezöge, den gegenstand der rede bezeichnen, also vielen wörtern zugesellt werden. er pflegt aber gewisse verba gleichsam ständig und regelmäszig zu begleiten; formell hat er dann keine vortretende bedeutung, im grunde aber liegt eine nachdrückliche verborgen, wenn sie schon im verlauf der zeit erblaszt ist fast alle solche verba mit 'es' verlieren sich tief ins alterthum"

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As an additional note to äüö's answer:

The core difference between with and without "es" for your concrete example would be as follows.

"Ich habe es mit Herausforderungen zu tun.": Implies, you are faced with something. So the (situation depending) context is abstractly(!) seen the subject of speech. "Tun" doesn't imply an active role or action here of the related subject a priori, it can rather even be a quite passive and reactional context the related subject is involved in. So for your concrete example, it would imply, that for instance within your job, you will be faced with challenges in a general context.

"Ich habe mit Herausforderungen zu tun.": Emphasizes the more active and more concrete involvement of the related subject with challenges here for this example. For example if someone asks you about details of your job, this would be the preferred terminus for the most cases since you emphasize your actual doing here (Your job is to handle concrete(!) challenges). It's not the environment or an abstract context that determines your actions above all, it's you.

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