The Existential "There"

Queen Mary's Garden in Regent's Park
The existential "there", assert that something exists, i.e. There are flowers in the garden. Howard Pugh (Marais)/Getty Images

The use of the expletive there in front of a verb—usually a form of be—to assert that someone or something exists. The construction as a whole is called an ​existential sentence.

Existential there, also known as nonreferential there, is entirely different from there used as a place adverb: "It has no locative meaning, as can be seen by the contrast: There's a sheep over there. Also, existential there carries no emphasis at all, whereas the adverb does: There he is" (Rediscover Grammar, 2003).

Examples and Observations

  • There is a river that runs from Pittsburgh down into West Virginia.
  • "There is a cult of ignorance in the United States." (Isaac Asimov)
  • "Why there is a large patch in the hollow of his left breast as bare as a snail out of its shell."(J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, 1937)
  • "Ah, there is a horrible witch sitting in the house, who spat on me and scratched my face with her long claws." (Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm, "The Bremen Town Musicians," 1812)
  • "There's a storm coming, Mr. Wayne." (Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises, 2012)
  • "There's good reasons to stick to what you know in this world." (Patricia Hall, Dead Reckoning. St. Martin's Press, 2003)
  • There are good reasons why warfare needs to be regulated.
  • "'In the Garden of Eden there was a Tree,' Chef said, passing him the pipe." (Stephen King, Under the Dome. Scribner, 2009)
  • "There were flowers: delphiniums, sweet peas, bunches of lilac; and carnations, masses of carnations." (Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, 1925)
  • "The existential there has the status of a dummy subject fulfilling the grammatical but not the semantic function of the subject." (Jiří Rambousek and Jana Chamonikolasová, "The Existential There-Construction in Czech Translation." Incorporating Corpora: The Linguist and the Translator, ed. by Gunilla M. Anderman and Margaret Rogers. Multilingual Matters, 2008)
  • "Existential there has commonly been treated in transformational grammar in terms of a transformation—​There-insertion—that inserts ​there in subject position . . . and moves the original subject into the V' in a position immediately following the verb . . .." (James D. McCawley, The Syntactic Phenomena of English, 2nd ed. University of Chicago Press, 1998)

Existential There vs. Referential There

"The word there is often called nonreferential or existential, there. As shown in (11), there fills the subject position and does not refer to anything previously mentioned.

(11) There is a unicorn in the garden. (= A unicorn is in the garden.)

Note that there is followed by a form of the copular be and by an NP (noun phrase) that would be the subject if the sentence did not include there. Nonreferential there can be distinguished from referential there by the fact that it fills the subject position in a clause. Referential there, in contrast, can occur in many positions in a sentence. Nonreferential there passes the three tests of subjecthood... .: It undergoes subject-aux inversion, as shown in (12a); it reappears in tags, as in (12b); and it contracts with copular be in speech and informal writing, as in (12c).

(12a) Are there any cookies left?
(12b) There was another road, wasn't there?
(12c) There's something we need to talk about."

(Ron Cowan, The Teacher's Grammar of English. Cambridge University Press, 2008)

Omission of Existential There

"Existential there may be omitted when a locative or directional Adjunct is in initial position:

Below the castle (there) stretches a vast plain.
Out of the mist (there) loomed a strange shape.

Without 'there' such clauses are very close semantically to reversed circumstantial clauses. However, the addition of a tag question—with there, not a personal pronoun (Close to the beach stands a hotel, doesn't there? *doesn't it?)—suggests that they are in fact existentials." (Angela Downing, English Grammar: A University Course, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2006)

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "The Existential "There"." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 25). The Existential "There". Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "The Existential "There"." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).