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Concourse 2

Existential there and it


Do your learners produce unnatural utterances like these?

  • A fire was in the house.
  • A seat was empty.
  • Learning fluent French by working and living in the country is not difficult.
  • Noisy children were in the garden.
  • A bank is on the corner.
  • A knife is on the table.

If they do, it may be because you haven't focused them on existential sentences or the use of dummy subjects.


The end-weight principle

There is a clear tendency in English to place longer and more complex phrases towards the end of sentences rather than at the beginning.  For example:

  1. The problem was John's complete and absolute denial that there was something seriously wrong with the car.
  2. John's complete and absolute denial that there was something seriously wrong with the car was the problem.

Which of these sounds more natural to you?  If you chose sentence 1., you are in the majority.  Sentence 2. flouts the endweight rule by placing the heavy (i.e., more complex) expression at the beginning.  The endweight principle accounts for a great deal of word ordering in English which is otherwise not easily explained.


The end-focus or old-before-new principle

Another principle at work in English is the fact that new information is placed towards the end of sentences.  Here's a very clear example (from Bruno, no date):

  1. Every Tuesday, Samantha takes her dog to the dog park near her house.  The city of San José maintains the dog park in an effort to promote healthy lifestyles.  The city of San José sustains several dog parks throughout the city.
  2. Every Tuesday, Samantha takes her dog to the dog park nearby her house.  The dog park is maintained in an effort to promote healthy lifestyles by the city of San José.  The city of San José sustains several dog parks throughout the city.

It is easy to see that 4. flows more easily than 3. because the reader is led through the three sentences by reference to old information before the introduction of new information.  This is an example of Theme-Rheme structuring.  (For more, go to the guide the Theme-Rheme structure on this site.)

So what?

Taken together, the end-weight and end-focus principles have a powerful effect on word order in English, even though the language is often said to have a very firmly fixed word order.


Existential there sentences

Compare these two sentences:

  1. There is something rather strange and frightening about him.
  2. Something strange and frightening is about him.

Sentence 6. sounds strange even though it is grammatically correct.  What English does here, to comply with the end-weight principle, is to insert a dummy subject and allow the noun phrase to be shifted to the end of the sentence.  Unsurprisingly, this is called 'shifting' in the literature.
(Note here that we are talking about there as a dummy subject, not there as an adverb.  When the word is an adverb it is usually stressed (There's John!, Please sit there) but when used as a dummy, it is unstressed (There's a bank on the corner.))

Here are some more examples of the ways English can use the dummy there:

  1. There can't be anything very wrong.
  2. There was someone playing the piano in the house.
  3. There are good reasons for the problem.
  4. There have been some nasty incidents recently.
  5. There's a man with a dog in the garden.

Now try to alter the sentences to avoid the existential there and see what you get.  Click here when you have done that.

Concord with the existential there

Usually, in informal English, we assume that the dummy there is singular.  This is not permitted in very formal English or anywhere near a grammar pedant.  We can, therefore, have both:

  1. There's two men coming up the path.
  2. There are two men coming up the path.

Relative pronoun clauses with existential there

This is a frequent pattern in English.  For example

  1. There's nothing more (that) I want to see.
  2. There's nothing (which) interests me here.

(Note that in 15. it is possible to omit the relative which.  That is not possible in other relative clauses because it is the subject of the verb.)

Other verbs with the existential there

The existential there is almost exclusively used with a form of the verb be.
Up to now we have only been using there with the verb be but there are other verbs which can be used.

  1. There stood a suspicious-looking man on the corner.
  2. There comes a time when I have simply to give up.

Uses like these are mostly literary and in 17., the clause has become a semi-fixed expression.


How many sorts of there sentences?

Quirk et al (1972) identify seven sorts of existential there sentence forms.  Others, e.g., Chalker (1984), refer to there used this way as the introductory there without setting out the possibilities in any detail and others, e.g., Parrott (2000) refer to it as a dummy subject, again without setting out the details.  We'll follow the first of these in this list but reduce the list to two main sorts, putting together related formulations (because that's the way to teach them).  The essential differences are down to transitivity in English verbs.
This is not a teaching syllabus, of course, but teachers need to be aware of the types of sentences in which the existential there occurs in English because these are not paralleled across all languages and present learners with some difficulties.

  1. Intransitive verbs
    1. There is / are + Subject + Verb
      1. There was a man waiting
      2. There was no-one looking
      3. Was anyone coming?
    2. There is / are + Subject + Verb + Adverbial
      1. There was a frog in the pool
      2. There was nobody about
      3. Were there any people there?
    3. There is / are + Subject + Verb + Subject Complement
      1. There is something unusual
      2. There isn't anything suspicious
      3. Is there something wrong?
  2. Transitive verbs
    1. There is / are + Subject + Verb + Object
      1. There are three people asking questions
      2. There aren't any people eating the food
      3. Is there anyone ringing the bell?
    2. There is / are + Subject + Verb + Object + Object Complement
      1. There are some men working on the house
      2. There hasn't any work being done on it
      3. Are there any questions needing answers?
    3. There is / are + Subject + Verb + Object + Adverbial
      1. The boss is having kittens again
      2. The teacher doesn't want my homework yet
      3. Is there anything you need now?
    4. There is / are + Subject + Verb + Indirect Object + Direct Object
      1. There is someone making the kitchen a mess
      2. There isn't anything to give you
      3. Is there something making you nervous?

Adverbials and complements can, in fact, be tacked on to all the forms so we might get, for example:

  • There is something unusual here
  • There are three people asking questions loudly
  • There hasn't any work being done on it yet
  • There isn't anything in the cupboard to give the children to eat

There are, somewhat more rarely, passive possibilities with the existential there.  For example:

  • There will be no stone left unturned
  • There have been four windows broken


it as a dummy subject

The principles of end focus (old before new) and end weight are at work here, too.

The pronoun it can stand for complete clauses and is often used in this way to allow us to shift the clause itself to the end.  Try doing it in these examples and then click here.

  1. To leave India without seeing the Taj Mahal is crazy.
  2. That he is such a good cook is surprising.
  3. What I do or say to her doesn't make a difference.
  4. To hear him talking so rudely and callously shocked me.

It as a meaningless dummy subject with no discernible meaning is used as the subject or object of many statements about weather, time, place and condition as well as some semi-fixed expressions.  For example:

  1. It is raining
  2. It is Wednesday
  3. It would be nice if you helped
  4. Note, too, the use in, e.g.
        It is odd that
        It is a pity that
        It is a shame that

For a little more in this area, see the guide to nominal clauses in which the clause as the object or subject of a verb is discussed.


A note about other languages and teaching this area

Very few languages handle this area in the same way that English does.  Few languages are as obsessed as English is with inserting a dummy subject and in those languages, the subject is often simply omitted, so you'll get errors such as
    *I don't like when you call me stupid
    *I think is probable they will win
Even if they do use a dummy it (as some do) they will probably not use an existential form such as there.
For example,
    There is a mouse in the house
might in other languages be
    It has a mouse in the house
    It gives a mouse in the house
    The house has a mouse
    It exists a mouse in the house
    It finds a mouse in the house
and so on.

Language such as Greek and Romanian which do not have a dummy subject of any kind will often use a verb meaning exist so, directly translating, speakers of those languages might produce
    Exists a mouse in the house
Careful attention and alertness to your learners' production in this area pays dividends in terms of their being able to produce more natural sounding and less foreign utterances.

Awareness raising of the principles of end focus and end weight

It is probably worth a bit of classroom time to raise your learners' awareness of these two fundamental principles because they underlie so much which is otherwise hard to explain.

A straightforward way to start the process is to present the learners with sentences which conform to the principles, contrasted with some that don't but express the same meaning.  For example, which of the following are the most natural formulations?  Click on the table when you have an answer.
existential task 1

From there, it's a short step to getting learners to be able to reformulate sentences more naturally as in this example.  Click on the table when you have the answer in your head.
task 2

Related guides
cleft sentences explaining how we get from, e.g., She liked the hotel to What she liked was the hotel
word ordering for a guide to canonical and marked word ordering in English
fronting for an analysis of how items may be marked and moved to the beginning of clauses
postponement and extrapositioning which explains how items can be moved to the end of a clause or sentence for effect

Bruno, C, n.d., Old Information before New Information, San José State University Writing Center, at http://www.sjsu.edu/writingcenter/ [accessed February 2015]
Chalker, S, 1984, Current English Grammar, Basingstoke: Macmillan
Parrott, M, 2000, Grammar for English Language Teachers (2nd Edition), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Quirk, R, Greenbaum, S, Leech, G & Svartvik, J, 1972, A Grammar of Contemporary English, Harlow: Longman