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Existential there and anticipatory or dummy it


Do your learners produce unnatural utterances like these?

If they do, it may be because you haven't focused them on existential sentences or the use of anticipatory or dummy subjects.
All the examples above can be more naturally formed using either the existential there or the dummy it formulation.
Try doing it or click here to see how that works.

In all the cases above, the more natural sentences are formed with the existential there or with a dummy it taking the subject position.
In all cases, too, the subject grammatically is there or it but the notional (or semantic, if you prefer) subject is the noun which would otherwise form the grammatical subject, too.



There are two points to notice concerning definiteness:

  1. We use the existential there when the noun itself is indefinite.  So, instead of the awkward and unnatural:
        Some sugar is in the cupboard
        A bus is on the corner

    we deploy the existential there to get:
        There is some sugar in the cupboard
        There is a bus on the corner.
  2. The dummy it is more frequently used when the noun which it anticipates is definite so we get, for example:
        The car was green
    converted to:
        It was a green car
        The house was empty and cold
    converted to:
        It was a cold, empty house.

By the way, there are many alternative descriptions of what we are calling the dummy pronoun here.  You may see them called an expletive pronoun, a preparatory pronoun or a pleonastic pronoun (pleonastic just means redundant or unnecessary).
Those expressions suggest that the forms are there to fulfil the requirements of English grammar rather than adding any meaning to the sentence and that is true.  In this sense, both the existential there and and the dummy or anticipatory it are frequently simply slot fillers which make a clause conform the iron rule (in English) of ensuring that verbs have subjects.

Some analyses, including most of this guide, distinguish between it used as a prop-form (which simply makes a clause conform to the grammar of English) and an anticipatory form which does stand for a recognisable item so, for example:
    It is raining
is an example of the word it used as a prop-form because English syntax requires a subject in declarative clauses.  The word does not stand for anything identifiable.  However, in:
    It was nice to be asked
we can see that the use of it is anticipatory and stands for the non-finite clause so the sentence may be rephrased as:
    To be asked was nice.


Two complementary principles

There are two principles at work here which combine to determine the normal or canonical ordering of factual information clauses.


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.
The key concept here is heaviness.  The longer and more complex a constituent of a clause is, the heavier it is said to be.
For example, modifying a noun with a single adjective as in:
    The red car
is a very light way to do so and the tendency in English is to place light elements such as adjectives, numerals and other determiners before the noun.  That's why, in English, we get:
    three cars
    cars three
(as we do in some other languages, including Yoruba and many African languages as well as Thai and many other South-East Asian languages).
On the other hand, heavier elements tend to follow what they modify so we have, e.g.:
    The car which I drove for many years when I was a student

Here is an example of how heaviness affects how natural-sounding a sentence is.  Read the following aloud and decide which to you seems the most natural, normal way to order the items in the sentence.  Then click here:

  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.

The end-focus or old-before-new principle

The other 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, linked in the list at the end of related guides.)


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.  The effect is twofold:

  1. Extrapositioning:
    The notional subject of the verb is moved towards the end of the clause, a phenomenon known as postponement, so instead of:
        The fire did the damage
    we might have
        It was the fire that did the damage
    and instead of
        Some children were damaging the garden
    we might have
        There were some children damaging the garden
  2. Fronting:
    An anticipatory or dummy subject fronts the sentence but, unlike most cases of fronting, this is in fact the unmarked rather than marked form in English (and that is not so in many languages).  For example, fronting an adverb usually marks it in some way for special emphasis, so the difference between:
        Yesterday, I went shopping
        I went shopping yesterday
    is that in the first case the time is marked as especially important and in the second, it is not.
    However, this is not the case for anticipatory there and it clauses so
        There is a snake in the garden
    is the normal, unmarked, way of stating a fact in English
        A snake is in the garden
    is less common and therefore more strongly marked.

The resulting sentence with the introductory or existential There ... contains two subjects: the noun phrase which is what we would normally expect to be the subject of the verb and the anticipatory subject, there or it.
This means that we have two subjects for a single verb and, because they refer to the same entity, they can be said to be in  apposition.

A second reason for focusing on this area in our teaching is that it is by no means straightforward, as we shall see and avoiding errors such as:
    *Anything can't be wrong
    *To learn a new language is fun

is mostly a matter of knowing how anticipatory, dummy subjects are used in English and being aware of the fact that this is the normal way of stating facts.  That may be in contradistinction to the way in which the learners' first languages operate.


Grammatical function and meaning

We saw above that the formation of it and there sentences relates to the idea of end focus in English.

Grammatically, both there and it function as the subject of the sentence in which they appear so, for example, in:
    It is difficult to learn how to do this
the pronoun it is the subject of the verb but the real, understood subject is the nominalised non-finite verb phrase to learn how to do this.  We can see that when the sentence is rephrased as
    To learn how to do this is difficult.
Equally in, e.g.:
    There is a dog in the garden
we can see that grammatically, there is the subject of the verb be but semantically we know that a dog is the subject of the verb and the sentence can be rephrased to show this as:
    A dog is in the garden.

In terms of meaning, the two types of sentence are distinct:

  1. Sentences with a fronted there is / there are clause refer to the existence of something so, e.g.:
        There is a storm coming
    refers to the existence of a storm, not its nature.
    Hence the term for such sentences is existential.
  2. Sentences using the fronted it + be are different and there are two types.  It is quite important to distinguish between them because the function of the pronoun is quite different:
    1. In some such clauses, the focus is on the nature of the real subject, not its existence per se.  Thus in, e.g.:
          It is wonderful to hear your news
      the focus is on the attribute wonderful as it applies to the news not on the existence of the news as such.  The sentence could be rephrased as:
          To hear your news is wonderful
      which shows that the pronoun does in fact have a real referent.
      In, e.g.:
          It doesn't matter what he says
          It is possible that I will have to work late
      the focus is on the fact that what he says (the real subject) is not of importance in the first example and on the fact that my having to work late (the real subject) is a possibility.
      Both sentences can be rephrased as:
          What he says doesn't matter
          That I will have to work late is possible

      In these kinds of sentence the function of it is to anticipate the real subject of the sentence; hence the name anticipatory.  The real subject is postponed to conform to end focus.
      The anticipatory nature of some it-clauses shows up particularly with cleft sentences (to which there is a separate guide, linked below) as in, for example:
          It was to a restaurant that they were invited
          It was them who were invited to a restaurant

      etc. which serve to mark the adverbial and the pronoun respectively for emphasis but we know what the real subject of both clauses is.
    2. Other it-fronted sentences are those in which there is no real or imagined subject at all and this accounts for the name we give to them: dummy-it clauses.  We can also call them empty it-clauses, non-referential it-clauses, prop it-clauses or even ambient it-clauses.
      In these cases, we have what is called a non-referential use of the pronoun because there is no referent to which it can refer.  For example:
          It's early
          It's raining
          It's time to go

      and in no case can we retrieve a noun phrase for which the pronoun may be said to stand.
  3. Certain (pseudo-) copular verbs are routinely used with a dummy it-subject as in, for example:
        It appears she's not coming
        It seems he's been sacked
        It's growing dark

  4. The dummy it construction is also preferred when a finite clause is raised to the patient position in a passive sentence so, for example, although:
        That he was late was noticed by the boss
    is grammatically acceptable, it is stylistically dispreferred and the preferred option is:
        It was noticed by the boss that he was late.
  5. A common passive form in English also requires the use of the dummy it so we get, for example:
        It is said that he is rather wealthy
        It was not considered advisable to do it that way
    in which the referent for the pronoun is difficult to identify although it may be something like people or the company.


Existential there clauses

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.

Here are some more examples of the ways English can use the dummy or existential 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.

The reason for this slight ambiguity is that, grammatically, there is the subject of the sentence but the subject of the 'normal' clause is notionally still the subject of the verb so both verb forms are allowable.
We could not have:
    *Two men is coming up the path
because that clearly breaks the rules of concord in English but when we rephrase with the existential there-clause, a singular verb form is often the choice.
Strictly speaking, there is precedes a singular or mass noun phrase and there are precedes a plural but concord in BrE, in particular, is a mess and we often encounter, for example:
    There's good reasons for his behaviour
and so on.
For more, see the guide to concord, linked below.

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.

(In both these examples it is possible to omit the relative that or which.  That is not possible in other relative clauses because it is the subject of the verb.  We cannot, therefore, allow:
    There's a man wants to see the manager
because the man is now the subject of the relative clause and the pronoun cannot be ellipted.)

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.  The copular verbs seem and appear are obvious candidates but others are possible.

  1. There stood a suspicious-looking man on the corner.
  2. There appears to be a mistake in the figures
  3. There comes a time when I have simply to give up.

Uses like these are mostly literary and in 18., the first clause has become a semi-fixed expression.


How many sorts of there clauses?

Quirk et al (1972) identify six 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 anticipatory, dummy or existential there occurs in English because these are not parallelled across all languages and present learners with some difficulties.

  1. Intransitive verbs
    1. There is / are + Subject + Verb
      The normal (non-fronted) sentence of this pattern is, for example:
          My mother is shopping
      but the pattern can be followed with an existential there clause, as in, for example:
      1. There was a man waiting
      2. There was no-one looking
      3. Was there anyone coming?
    2. There is / are + Subject + Verb + Adverbial
      The normal (non-fronted) sentence of this pattern is, for example:
          My mother is shopping in the town centre
      but the pattern can be followed with an existential there clause, as in, for example:
      1. There was a frog in the pool
      2. There was nobody about
      3. Were there any people there?
    3. There is / are + Verb + Subject Complement
      The normal (non-fronted) sentence of this pattern is, for example:
          My mother is unhappy about the weather
      but the pattern can be followed with an existential there clause, as in, for example:
      1. There is something unusual in the corner
      2. There isn't anything suspicious here
      3. Is there something wrong with her?
  2. Transitive verbs
    1. There is / are + Subject + Verb + Object
      The normal (non-fronted) sentence of this pattern is, for example:
          A student is asking questions
      but the pattern can be followed with an existential there clause, as in, for example:
      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 + Adverbial
      The normal (non-fronted) sentence of this pattern is, for example:
          My mother is buying a new watch from that shop
      but the pattern can be followed with an existential there clause, as in, for example:
      1. There is someone making a noise outside
      2. There were some children cleaning the playground up
      3. There have been lots of people photographing the lions in the zoo
    3. There is / are + Subject + Verb + Object complement
      The normal (non-fronted) sentence of this pattern is, for example:
          The sailors are pulling the mooring ropes tight
      but the pattern can be followed with an existential there clause, as in, for example:
      1. There have been two men been making the garden tidy
      2. There will be police here to make the road safe for pedestrians
      3. There is a blacksmith making the horseshoes red hot
    4. There is / are + Subject + Verb + Indirect Object + Direct Object
      The normal (non-fronted) sentence of this pattern is, for example:
          My mother is buying me a present
      but the pattern can be followed with an existential there clause, as in, for example:
      1. There is someone making the kitchen a mess
      2. There is someone reading the children a story
      3. Is there anyone giving you problems?

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

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


it as a dummy or anticipatory 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.
This is why it is called the anticipatory it.  The pronoun anticipates what it stands for (often a nominalised clause).
We can convert a sentence with a nominalised clause to one with an anticipatory it-subject like this:
    To leave the party early was a mistake
    It was a mistake to leave the party early.

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.

The anticipatory it can also stand for a range of nominalised phrases and clauses as in, e.g.:

adjective plus non-finite to-infinitive
    It is wonderful to see her
    It is a delight to watch
    It's fun to try
    It is a shame to miss the concert
    It is a pity to lose the money
    It is odd to forget them
adjective plus non-finite -ing clause
    It is lovely being here
    It is horrible going shopping with her
    It was nasty walking in the rain
nominalised finite that-clauses
    It is odd that she isn't here
    It is a pity that she can't come
    It is a shame that he's away

It as a 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

This use is referred to as the non-referential use of it for a rather obvious reason: we cannot, in fact, identify the referent at all.
Fort a little more in this area, see the guide to nominal clauses, linked from the list at the end, in which the clause as the object or subject of a verb is discussed.


it as a dummy object

So far, we have considered the role of it as a dummy subject of the verb but, on a rather ad hoc basis, English can use a dummy it as the object of a verb or even a prepositional complement / object.  Again, in these senses, it is very difficult to assign a referent to the pronoun (although it is sometimes possible to infer it).
For example, in expressions such as:
    Go for it!
    He'd made it in life before he was out of his twenties
    I don't get it at all
    I'm afraid I blew it
    I don't feel very with it today
    I asked but she seemed a bit out of it at the time
    I can't take it any more

all the uses of it are either as a dummy object of a verb or a dummy complement object in a prepositional phrase.



Both it and there are function words rather than containing any recognisable content and, in common with most function words, are susceptible to a good deal of weakening and reduction in connected speech.
In fact, both items are often so reduced that they are barely noticeable and that represents both a comprehension and production problem for some learners who, having not heard the items, may well not realise the importance of using them.

If, for example, we say:
    It's silly to do that
the pronunciation may well be:
with no sounding of the anticipatory it's at all because the pronoun is elided and so is the verb by a process of adjacent sound elision because of the /s/ at the start of silly.
Even if it is sounded in some fashion, it is unlikely to be more noticeable than the opening /ə/ in:
The 't' in the word is almost never sounded in connected speech.
Even when we say:
    It's a pity
in which there are no adjacent sounds the pronunciation may well be:
rather than
as one would get in citation mode or very careful and formal speech.

The word there also suffers the same fate but is not elided altogether even in very rapid speech.
If we say:
    There's a pub on the corner
the usual transcription of even quite slow speech would be:
rather than the careful
Even in very careful speech, the 'r' in the word is unlikely to be sounded by a BrE speaker but in AmE the transcription may well be:

(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:
's John!
    Please sit there
and given its full form as /ðeə/, but when used as a dummy, it is unstressed:
    There's a bank on the corner.
and often contains a weakened vowel so the first two words in the last sentence are pronounced as /ðəz/ rather than /ðeəz/.)


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

Usually errors like this arise because the learner's first language is a so-called pro-drop language.
In Italian, for example:
    I am unhappy
translates as:
    Sono triste
with no pronoun before the verb.  Spanish, Catalan, Russian, Romanian, Greek and a range of other languages routinely omit the pronoun because the verb form signals the person and the pronoun is redundant.  Other languages, such as French, Portuguese, German and Swedish are, like English, non-pro-drop languages.
The result is that people whose first languages are pro-drop will often produce:
    *Is difficult
    *Was nice
    *Will be fun

etc. because that is how the clauses will translate directly.  So, for example:
    It is difficult
translates as:
    Eínai dýskolo (Greek)
    Es difícil (Spanish)
    È difficile (Italian)
    Este dificil (Romanian)

Even if they do use a dummy it (as some do) speakers of many languages 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
the word order map for links to other guides in this area
cleft sentences explaining how we get from, e.g., She liked the hotel to It was the hotel she liked
concord for the guide to an extremely messy and variable grammatical area in British English in particular
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
nominalised clauses clauses acting as noun phrases are often the referent for the anticipatory it discussed above
theme and rheme for more on how the anticipatory and existential uses of it and there form the themes
postponement and extrapositioning which explains how and why items can be moved to the end of a clause or sentence

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
Croft, W, 1990, Typology and Universals, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
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