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I took this sentence from Oxford Grammar:

In the bath was the biggest spider I had ever seen.

I had always thought that the construction there + be is united before reading this example. I would have thought it should be written like this:

In the bath, there was the biggest spider I had ever seen.

However, I'm not sure whether it's a typo that the book has or I've just misunderstood all this time.

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    You probably know this, but an American like me would say, “in the bathtub,” although I would understand what “in the bath” means.
    – Davislor
    Commented Nov 20, 2021 at 23:40

2 Answers 2

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In that construction "there" can be omitted, and often is.

  • In the room was a very tall man.
  • On the porch were two window-boxes.
  • In the parking lot was a purple car.
  • In the store were all manner of books.
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  • Would using this construction in everyday speech be OK?
    – Mohammad
    Commented Nov 20, 2021 at 7:11
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    @Mohammad - yes. Commented Nov 20, 2021 at 10:42
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    @Mohammad absolutely yes. I personally would often prefer to include the optional "there", but I hear this constriction in ordinary speech from native speakers often enough. Commented Nov 20, 2021 at 14:14
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Either “In the bath was a spider,” or “There was a spider in the bath” would be correct. That’s called an existential there. It doesn’t refer to any specific place. It introduces something and says that it exists. However, we can also use was or is with a location existentially.

So, if I know of a good restaurant down the street, I do not think you are aware of it, and I want to inform you that it exists, I might tell you:

  1. Down the street is a good restaurant.
  2. There’s a good restaurant. (And point to it.)
  3. A good restaurant is that one, over there.
  4. There’s a good restaurant down the street.

You can read 2 as substituting a pronoun for the location in 1, and if I weren’t pointing to a specific location, you could also read it as an existential statement that specified no location. Over there in sentence 3 unambiguously means a location. I could instead say, “down the street.” There’s no substitution for there that works in sentence 4. There in that context is just a dummy pronoun; it does not refer to any place at all.

If you already knew about the restaurant, I would instead say something like, “The restaurant there is good.” I don’t need to tell you that it exists, just specify which one I mean (the one at the location someone had just mentioned).

In modern English, the phrase “there is” doesn’t normally mean the same thing as “it is there.” As you’ve observed, it’s so completely lost any association with place that we can say where something is in the same breath as there is. However, we can substitute a location for there in an existential statement, too.

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  • "There’s no substitution for there that works in sentence 4." How about "I know of a good restaurant down the street." or "I think you'll find a good restaurant down the street." or "Jones told me of a good restaurant down the street." Commented Nov 20, 2021 at 15:08
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    Sentence 2 could also be said just after visiting the resturant, perhaps while patting the belly: "Now there's a good restaurant". Commented Nov 20, 2021 at 15:11
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    @DavidSiegel Those are all great alternatives. What I meant is that none of them substitute a referent for the pronoun there in the sentence, “There is a good restaurant down the street.” This there has no referent at all, because it is a dummy pronoun. We specify the location in a different part of the sentence. You could of course replace the phrase “There is” with a different subject and verb.
    – Davislor
    Commented Nov 20, 2021 at 18:28

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