"It" or "there" are both correct in the following. Is there any difference in grammatical terms?

It/There was standing room only in the courthouse.

I'd appreciate your help.

  • This is a good question! I suspect a good answer will need to go quite deep into linguistic theory. One difficulty is that standing room only is formulaic language (a set phrase). Note that if you strip it down to the grammatical basics, you can only use the there variant: There was room in the courthouse. This fact should be accounted for in the answer.
    – legatrix
    Jan 11, 2021 at 7:29
  • 1
    They are both grammatically and semantically fine. "It" is a meaningless dummy element functioning as subject with "standing room only" as predicative complement. In the other, the dummy pronoun "there" is subject in an existential construction with the noun phrase "standing room only" as displaced subject.
    – BillJ
    Jan 11, 2021 at 8:39

1 Answer 1


They are a little bit different, yes.

"There was standing room only" is a slightly older phrasing of what might be more modernly written as "There was only standing room" or "There was only room for standing" were it not such a common phrase in itself. The phrase "standing room" is being used as a sort of concrete noun here, as though "standing room" was a physical thing located in the place, alongside presumably some "seating room" that was all taken up.

"It was standing room only" is similar but treats "standing room" as an adjective, more of an event or description of a vibe. Like you might say "It was hot, cramped, and standing room only".

  • If a hyphen, or more precisely an en dash is inserted between "standing room" and "only," the difference would be more obvious.
    – Apollyon
    Jan 16, 2021 at 15:13

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