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In the following sentence, what are the form and function of the word "there"?

There were fifteen cats and an eviction notice on Janet's front porch.

  • My answer was this: Form: adverb of place / Function: adverb

  • Test corrector: Form: pronoun / Function: subject.

I'm not convinced by this correction. What is the right answer?

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    Can you tell us what research you've done? If you search SE, you'll find several discussions that describe this construction. (E.g.: english.stackexchange.com/questions/190328/…) Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 5:15
  • I read it but I didn't understand well. I'm required to identify both form and function Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 5:22
  • form=plural, compare: there is
    – Lambie
    Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 14:49
  • What a great question! In other languages, there (lol) is a distinction between 'there' as in 'there exists' and 'there' as in 'over there'. In some such languages the word for 'there' as in 'there exists' means the whole of 'there exists' (so there [lol] isn't like another word for 'exists' when you use the word for 'there')
    – BCLC
    Commented Jan 8, 2022 at 9:10

4 Answers 4

7

There were fifteen cats and an eviction notice on Janet's front porch.

This is an existential construction, where there is not an adverb but a dummy pronoun functioning as subject of the sentence.

It's significant that there occurs as subject in interrogative tags:

There were fifteen cats and an eviction notice on Janet's front porch, weren't there?

Only pronouns are admissible in a tag like this, so not only do we know that there is a pronoun, we also know it's the subject.

Further evidence that existential there is the subject comes from the fact that it occupies the basic subject position before the verb, and in subject-auxiliary constructions it occurs after the auxiliary, as in Were there fifteen cats and an eviction notice on Janet's front porch?

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  • 1
    +1 and what do you make of both Oxford and M-W calling existential there an adverb? In particular, under their analysis, what would they consider the subject?
    – gotube
    Commented Jan 8, 2022 at 1:00
  • I don't comment on the classification of words by dictionaries. Generally, dictionaries are best used for meanings and spellings, not for grammar.
    – BillJ
    Commented Jan 8, 2022 at 11:09
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In this particular sentence, it's acting as a dummy pronoun, and the subject of the sentence.

However, in a very similar sentence, it can act as an adverb, when it represents a specific place:

John pointed to the table. "There is your purse!" he exclaimed.

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  • This isn't a similar sentence except that some of the words are in the same order. In that sentence, "there" is clearly an adverb, and does not have the meaning of "it exists" like "there is/are/...".
    – gotube
    Commented Jan 8, 2022 at 0:56
  • 1
    @gotube, exactly - it looks similar, beginning "there is", but with "there" being an adverb rather than dummy pronoun. Commented Jan 8, 2022 at 18:26
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    Oh, then your answer has no explanation, just a plain answer. Other answerers have already said this. Do you have something to add in terms of explanation that isn't covered in another answer?
    – gotube
    Commented Jan 9, 2022 at 4:32
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The part of speech isn't clear.

Cambridge Learner's Dictionary says it's a pronoun:

there
pronoun
used to show that something exists or happens:
There are three girls in my family.
Is there any milk?

Oxford Learner's Dictionaries says it's an adverb:

there adverb
1 there is, are, was, were, etc. used to show that something exists or happens

  • There's a restaurant around the corner.
  • There are two people waiting outside.
  • Has there been an accident?

Merriam-Webster doesn't have a clear definition for "there" in this structure, but it labels it an adverb in the section, "Examples of there in a Sentence":

Adverb
There are both justifiable reticence and understandable self-censorship in this book.

The function is subject because it's a dummy subject.

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    In addition, and to my knowledge, the subject-verb inversion is taking place here because "there" is technically an adverb. (subject="fifteen cats...") (grammaring.com/subject-verb-inversion-after-place-adverbials) Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 5:44
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    @GwangmuLee What inversion? It goes subject-verb, just like normal.
    – gotube
    Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 5:51
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    That's how I was taught in high school; if you see "fifteen cats..." as a real subject and "there" as an adverb, it's a subject-verb inversion, though I'm not sure if this level of detail will ever be necessary. I think there are also some discussions here and there; forum.wordreference.com/threads/…. Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 5:59
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    @GwangmuLee You might be right, but the first link you gave doesn't make it clear whether it applies to dummy subject "there". It better describes the situation in this question, where there's an adverb of place. I do not consider Internet chat forums credible. The fact that some random people disagree on something is not the same as saying there's disagreement among professional linguists.
    – gotube
    Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 6:08
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    @gotube A subject is a noun phrase, never an adverb. There are good arguments that "there" is an adverb, and that "there" is the subject, but those claims are incompatible.
    – aschepler
    Commented Jan 8, 2022 at 1:13
1

I'm actually inclined to consider your answer as correct. I think the "dummy subject" explanation for "there" is merely a prescriptivist proposal that does not actually reflect the native speaker's intuition. Consider:

There came the rain.
There was rain.

It is clear in the first sentence that "the rain" is the subject and "there" is an adverb. Since all the instances of "there" in "there were" can likewise be understood as adverbs, and some like the first sentence cannot be understood as a dummy subject, I think it is more accurate to classify "there" as an dummy adverb in all cases.

There is plenty of evidence for viewing "there" as an adverb, besides the simplicity of classification. For one, it is unlike the dummy pronoun "it" in:

It was raining.

Note the clear difference — "It was participle" is permitted because "It" is truly functioning as a pronoun, whereas "There was participle" is never allowed.

For another, "there" can be replaced by any adverbial phrase in that position that conveys location or source, such as:

From the clouds came the rain.
In the meadow were many flowers.
On Janet's front porch were fifteen cats and an eviction notice.

Also, I am not the only one who propose this view on E L&U.

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  • Though this is a fair view, as a native US speaker I think my own intuition leans more toward pronoun. For one thing, I would expect "Is there anyone who ...?" "Yes, there's me", and not "Yes, there is I" or "Yes, there am I". (In modern English as I hear and use it, a predicate nominative pronoun is an objective form, not subjective.)
    – aschepler
    Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 16:01
  • @aschepler: Interesting. I'd like to discuss your example a bit. You're right that the "me" in "there's me" seems to suggest that native speakers took it as a complement. But the fact that some native speakers also say "between you and I" suggests that the source of this phenomenon may not be the 'true' underlying grammar. In fact, if I was the one answering to "Is there anyone who ...?", I would never say "there's me" but instead start with "Yes I ...".
    – user21820
    Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 16:06
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    Also another big point for the adverb side: the verb must use the singular or plural form depending on the noun phrase.
    – aschepler
    Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 16:08
  • @aschepler: That's right, I was just going to say that in my next comment! Haha.. I readily admit that "there" in "Are there any questions?" and "Never has there been such a problem." look like subject-verb inversion, but it is unclear to me that such inversion is based on grammatical function rather than salience and euphony. And, as you mentioned before I could, the verb must agree with the number of the 'true' subject, and if we take this agreement to indicate the grammatical structure then the "there" is necessarily adverbial.
    – user21820
    Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 16:11
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    For ELL purposes, I'd just say that the grammatical details are unclear (making the original test question not very useful), but the important points are that "there" + form of "be" is a special thing, to understand its meaning, and to always match the grammatical number with the noun phrase.
    – aschepler
    Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 16:19

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