What is the correct interrogative structure of existential clause in present and past tense?

Choice 1 (A): "was there food?"

Choice 2 (A): "there was food?"

Another example just with additional question word:

Choice 1 (B) "Where was there food?"

Choice 2 (B) "Where there was food?"

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    @FumbleFingers I'm not sure it's a duplicate. There may be more depth to this question than the one in your link. Please see my answer. – Andrew May 13 '18 at 17:33
  • I've changed your tag "existential-clause" to the more common one used in ELL existentials for easier referencing. – Mari-Lou A May 14 '18 at 8:24
  • Can you show a reference that supports you new term? The term "existential clause" is the most widely used in the literature to describe such sentences. – Judicious Allure May 14 '18 at 8:29

The interrogative form of a statement must include or imply a statement.

Case 1: "There was food." is a statement

The interrogative of "There was x." is "Was there x?

Just like: "There is x" and "Is there x?"

Case 2: "There was food on the table". On the table is an adverbial phrase. It is the place where the food was.

The interrogative here would be: "Where was there food?" Answer: "There was food on the table." OR "There was food there or over there. [if you are pointing at it]

The phrase "where there was food" is a relative clause. It can work like this:

I was looking for the guests in the room where there was food.

It cannot stand alone unless it is a continuation of a dialogue as given by Andrew in his answer. But if you are starting a conversation yourself, you cannot just say: "Where there was food". That would not make sense.


Taking the existential sentence:

There was food.

The existential question form would be:

Was there food?

Other examples:

There was a house on a high hill ⇒ Was there a house on a high hill?

There were many fruit trees surrounding the house ⇒ Were there many fruit trees surrounding the house?

The same is true for verbs other than "to be", although this structure can seem overly formal, dramatic, and/or literary (although the existential statement itself is already somewhat literary):

There lived in that house an old man and an old woman ⇒ Lived there in that house an old man and an old woman?

More common would be:

Did an old man and an old woman live there, in that house?

That being said: It's not uncommon to hear an existential phrase spoken as a question, to indicate the speaker believes the statement is true:

A: I went to the meeting last night. It was incredibly boring.
B: There was food?
A: Yes, at least there was food.

It's also possible to phrase the question as in your second example:

A: Last night I went to this meeting -
B: Where there was food?
A: Yes, there was food at the meeting. But it was so boring it wasn't really worth it.

Again, this are both slightly literary. Simple questions are more common:

Was there food (there)?

  • Thank you for your answer. So when I add a question word (why, where etc.) how should I build the existential clause? (Is "Where was there food" is Ok?) – Judicious Allure May 13 '18 at 17:45
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    @subtle_sibling I'm not sure if, technically, "Where was there food?" is an existential question, because the focus is on the location of the food, not the existence / nonexistence of the food. It depends what you want to know. – Andrew May 13 '18 at 18:03
  • I want to know about the location of the existence of the food. – Judicious Allure May 13 '18 at 18:17
  • @subtle_sibling how about, "Where is it that there was food?" :) – Andrew May 13 '18 at 18:26
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    The OP doesn't understand what the term existential clause means. They have discovered the term, but they don't understand that using a "wh" word with "there is/are"changes the sentence from "existential" to a normal interrogative sentence. There is a shop (existential) and *Where is there a shop?" there (adverb) = locative – Mari-Lou A May 14 '18 at 7:21
  1. You were hungry (statement)
  2. Were you hungry? (question)

  3. There was food [in the house].

  4. Was there (any) food [in the house]?

In sentence 4, the speaker is asking whether the house contained any food.

5.(a) Where was the food?

In sentence 5, the speaker is asking for the location of the food. The EXISTENCE of the food is implied in the question. They knew that there was food but not where to find it.

  1. (a) It was in the shopping bags.
    (b) There was food in the shopping bags.

Sentence 6 tells the speaker where the food was.

  1. (b) Where was there food?

Sentence 5 (b) is still asking for the location of the food, not if the food existed.

If there was no food in the fridge, then where was it?

You could place there in place of "it" with no changing of meaning but it sounds slightly awkward.

  • It's the same answer as Lambie wrote. You could edit her answer to make it clearer. – Judicious Allure May 14 '18 at 8:27
  • @subtle_sibling I don't care about the upvotes or the downvotes. My aim was to show what "existential" means, which none of the answers actually addressed. I think Lambie's answer is good but to me it "looks" confusing, there is too much bold but that's her stylistic choice. Yesterday, I edited to "show" that their answer was correct. Existential sentence is practically the same as "existential clause". I mean, you understand what a sentence is, right? – Mari-Lou A May 14 '18 at 8:31
  • @subtle_sibling Oh, and my answer does not replicate hers, she rightly speaks of relative clauses (brilliant point) and why starting a conversation with "Where was there food?" would not make sense, but then again you were not asking how to start a conversation, were you? You were interested in making existential interrogatives, but a question beginning with a wh-word (what, where, why, when, who, whose) is not asking about the existence of a thing or things. – Mari-Lou A May 14 '18 at 8:52
  • This is a well-written answer that I think will be of use to future learners who visit the site. – J.R. May 25 '18 at 21:22

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