Consider the example below:

"There was a cat under the table."

There have been numerous questions asked that have involved the topic of existential constructions and the word "there" that is used in them. I would like to see some grammatical rationales that will explain what that word "there" actually is -- or is not -- in an existential construction in today's standard English.

These are some of the things that I've heard, with respect to that "there" and/or the existential construction:

  1. "There" is the grammatical subject of the clause.

  2. "There" is a dummy pronoun.

  3. The subject is an external complement. (optional)

  4. An existential construction has no clausal object. (optional)

  5. There is no such thing as a passive existential construction. (optional)

What syntactical arguments can be made for or against those above statements? And how well accepted are those above statements?

Please provide some vetted grammatical sources in your answers.

  • 1
    +1 Nice question. Could you clarify whether we're talking straightforward non-catenative constructions here? Because otherwise several answers including (1), and (5), it seems, on brief reflection (not research), might be radically different. Commented Sep 23, 2014 at 7:38
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    This is not a "learning English" question but a general linguistics question.
    – TimR
    Commented Sep 23, 2014 at 14:40
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    @TimRomano Well, that concern that I mentioned was, of course. But the actual question could be either one couldn't it? Many learners think that there retains a full locative meaning. They also try to use locative there as a subject, which can't done straightforwardly. Expletive there can be used in passive constructions and locative there can't. So understanding existential constructions as well as the functions of subject etc, does help learners get a clearer grip on existential BE and their grammar in general, imo. And discussing functions like Subjecthood's always useful :) Commented Sep 23, 2014 at 16:54
  • 2
    Really? It's more important to be umphy and aahy about that mod than it is to share your help and insights with learners here? Really? And I, know it's not important, but how about your old chum here too? Come on F.E., what about all those helpful comments, wonderful pieces, bits of art, helpfulnesses ...? Not going to share the love? What's the point then? Come on Tiger zebra thing!!! Be a Zebra / Tiger / Teacher / Helper / Explainer / Grammar Tiger ... Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 0:20
  • 2
    Aaargh, just come on!! Share the love. Stuff the mods. Be a tiger ... :) Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 0:22

4 Answers 4


Part 1 Subjects: Words, Phrases and Functions

To make this section of the answer easier to think about, let's look at an even simpler example:

There's a new president.

The number one question here is: What is the subject of this sentence? This isn't as easy as it looks. If we want to answer this question we need to really understand what a subject is. And if we want to understand what a subject is, we need to understand the difference between a function in a sentence, and a part of speech, for example a Noun. Being a Noun and being a Subject are completely different. A Noun can be a Subject but it can do many other jobs as well. For example, a Noun can also be an Object, a Modifier in a Noun Phrase, or the Complement of a Preposition:

  • I like monkeys. (Direct Object)
  • I'm a monkey fanatic. (Modifier in Noun Phrase)
  • I received a message from the monkeys. (Complement of Preposition)

So Nouns seem to be a type of word. The different jobs that a word can do are called functions. The words Subject, Object, Modifier, Complement are all different jobs or functions. There are many other types of function.

Very often we see a group of words, not just one word, doing some particular function in a sentence:

The mice like cheese

Here, the Subject is two words: The mice. The most important word in that group is the Noun mice. We call the chunk of words the mice a Noun Phrase. We can have very long Noun Phrases:

I am a very keen monkey fanatic.

Here a very keen monkey fanatic has the job of Complement of the Verb BE.

This big Noun Phrase has some words in it that seem to work together. For example the word very seems to go together with the word keen. The answer to How keen is he? is Very keen!. In the chunk very keen, the Adjective keen seems to be the main word. This chunk is an Adjective Phrase. So, we have a big Noun Phrase functioning as Complement of BE, and inside the Complement we have an Adjective Phrase functioning as Modifier. So large phrases have smaller phrases inside them. Every phrase always has its own function.

Sometimes we might want to do a test, to see which chunks of words go together in one phrase. One well-known test, is to use a substitute word to replace part of a sentence. Usually, if the substitute word replaces a group of words, then that whole group is one phrase and will have its own function. We can do this test with The mice like cheese. Let's use the word They:

They like cheese.

So the word they replaced the words The mice. This shows that the mice is one phrase - a Noun Phrase. It also indicates that The mice has one function - it's the Subject.

There is one very special function we haven't talked about. Us teachers and linguists are a bit naughty; we say things like Subject Verb Object, things like that. Of course Verb is a type of word, not a function! Verbs can have many functions, they can be Subjects, for instance:

To love is the most important thing.

But there is one function that can only be carried by Verb Phrases (in English). No other words or types of phrase can do this job:

I smoke.

Here the job being done by the Verb smoke is the job of Predicate. In the same way that every sentence in English has a Verb, every English sentence has a Predicate. This is the job that the Verb Phrase does. What I want to show you now, is that the functions of Subject and Object are not equal. The Subject is a far more important and fundamental part of any sentence than the Object. Let's do a substitution test with the sentence:

The mice like cheese.

We know that we can substitute they for The mice. Let's use an auxiliary verb as another substitute word. We know that auxiliaries can 'stand in' for other words in sentences. The sentence is present simple so we need the auxiliary DO. Look what happens to the sentence:

They do.

We can see that both of the words like and cheese have been replaced. This shows that like cheese is one phrase. The head word is the Verb like, so like cheese is a Verb Phrase. The function or job of the Verb Phrase in the sentence is Predicate.

Inside the Verb Phrase (the Predicate) , there is a small Noun Phrase, cheese. The function of cheese inside this Verb Phrase is Complement of the verb. It is a special kind of complement: an Object. This test shows something very important about Subjects that makes them completely different from Objects and other complements. Subjects are outside the Predicate. We can say that they are external to the Verb Phrase. Other complements of the verb are Internal complements. They live inside the Verb Phrase and inside the Predicate. If we replace the Verb Phrase, all the complements of the verb are replaced too. In fact, everything outside of the Subject is part of the Predicate and will be replaced in a substitution test like this.

Hold on a minute! This sounds like the job of Subject is about how sentences are made, how we build them. What about meaning? Subjects must have a special meaning, mustn't they? Some people say that verbs tell us about actions. They say that the person or people that do the actions are the Subjects. So in Bob punched Nelson, the Subject is Bob. In this sentence this is true, but in many sentences it isn't. In the sentence Bob is a monkey fanatic, Bob isn't doing anything. The sentence is just telling us about a quality or chracteristic of Bob. There's no action here. Let's do a substitution test for this sentence with the pronoun he and the auxiliary verb BE:

He is.

Here we can see that we have a subject and a predicate, even though there's no action and no person doing the action. Ok, so maybe that's not a good test because BE here is used with a stative meaning. How about a sentence like Bob was punched by Nelson. We can ask the question Who was punched by Nelson? The answer will be:

Bob was.

Here we see was being used for was punched by Nelson. Again the sentence has two parts, a Subject Bob and the Predicate was punched by Nelson. Now here Bob wasn't doing the punching, he received the punches. In a passive sentence like this the person doing the action appears in the Verb Phrase. So the role of the Subject in the sentence, what that person does or doesn't do, is not significant in terms of what is the Subject. Notice again that the Subject is external - it's outside the Predicate. We do have names for the person who does something and the person it is done to. They are called thematic roles. In both sentences Bob was punched by Nelson and Nelson punched Bob, Nelson has the thematic role of agent. Bob has the thematic role of patient.

Subjects, it seems, are indeed about the structure of the sentence. They are about how we build sentences. They are not about meaning, in the sense that they are not about what the Subject is or isn't doing. We have other words to talk about such meaning. Subjects are about grammar, syntax, not meaning.

Let's review what we've looked at. We have talked about how parts of speech and functions are different. We showed that the basic parts of any English sentence are the Subject and the Predicate. Objects and any other complements of the verb are found inside the Predicate. Because the Predicate always has a Verb as its head, we say that subjects are external to the Verb Phrase. Objects and any other parts are internal.

Now let's look again at the first example sentence in this post:

There is a new president.

We could ask the question Is there a new president? The answer would be:

There is.

Here the auxiliary verb is is standing in for the whole Verb Phrase. The Predicate therefore is is a new president. These are the words that have been 'replaced' by is. This shows that a new president is internal to the Verb Phrase. It cannot be the Subject here. It must be a Complement of the verb BE. However, we do still see the word There. This shows that There is not part of the Predicate. It must, therefore, be the Subject! In fact in all sentences like this with expletive there, there is the subject.

There are many other reasons and ways to show that there is the subject in sentences like this. There is also one reason why some people are surprised, or don't believe, that There is the subject. You can find a discussion about these things in Part 2. ( - after I write it)

For an introduction to functions, phrases, constituency tests and all that jazz, I recommend English Syntax and Argumentation by Bas Aarts 2013.

Hope this is helpful!


2. "There" is a dummy pronoun.

A simple diagnostic test that demonstrates that the existential "there" word is a pronoun is to show that it can occur as the subject in an interrogative tag. For example:

  • "There was a cat under the table, wasn't there?"

Only pronouns can be used as a subject in an interrogative tag like the one in the above example. (The interrogative tag is "wasn't there?")

The existential "there" pronoun is a dummy semantically: it has been bleached of its locative meaning.


  • "There was a cat here under the table."

and (ASITEG, page 251),

  • "There's a policeman here."

and (2002 CGEL, page 1391),

  • "There is nothing there."

  • "What is there there?"

  • "There is nothing here."

where the above bolded elements are the usual locative words (they are adverbs or intransitive prepositions, depending on your grammar), and they can be in an existential clause without causing conflict with the existential "there" word. This shows that the existential "there" word has been bleached of any locative meaning.

Since the existential "there" word has been bleached of its locative meaning and has been reanalyzed as a pronoun, then, it is a dummy pronoun.


= = = = = Vetted Grammar Sources = = = = =

SOURCE #1: Here is a related excerpt from a 2005 grammar textbook by Huddleston and Pullum, A Student's Introduction to English Grammar (ASITEG), page 249:

Existential clauses

The pronoun it is not the only pronoun used as a dummy in English. The spelling there is today used for two different words, one a locative rhyming with dare and meaning "in or at that place" (as in Put it there), and the other a dummy pronoun pronounced unstressed with a reduced vowel. The primary role of the dummy there is to fill the syntactic subject position in clauses like the [b] examples in [26], which are called existential clauses:

[26] - - - - BASIC VERSION - - - - - - - - - - - - - - EXISTENTIAL CLAUSE

  • i. a. [Some keys] were near the safe. - - b. [There] were [some keys] near the safe.

  • ii. a. [A nurse] was present. - - - - - - - - - b. [There] was [a nurse] present.

There is the subject of the existential clauses in [26], just as it is subject in the extraposed subject construction, and similar arguments support this conclusion:

  • there occupies the basic subject position before the VP;

  • in subject-auxiliary inversion constructions it occurs after the auxiliary, as in Was there a nurse present?

It is significant that there also occurs as subject in interrogative tags, as in:

[27] - - There was a nurse present, [wasn't there?]

Only pronouns are admissible in a tag like the one here, as we noted in Ch. 9, &2.3. That means we not only know dummy there is a subject, we know it is a pronoun.

We will refer to some keys and a nurse in [26.i.b] and [26.ii.b] as displaced subjects. A displaced subject (like an extraposed subject) is not a kind of subject; it's the phrase that corresponds to the subject of the syntactically more basic construction.


SOURCE #2: Here is an excerpt from the 1985 reference grammar by Quirk et al., A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. But notice that it is actually more related to the issue of showing that the existential "there" word is a grammatical subject.

On page 1405, in section "The status of existential there as subject":

18.46 The there of existential sentences differs from there as an introductory adverb in lacking stress, in carrying none of the locative meaning of the place-adjunct there, and in behaving in most ways like the subject of the clause, doubtless reflecting the structural dislocation from the basic clause types:

(i) It often determines concord, governing a singular form of the verb (cf 10.34 ff) even when the following 'notional subject' is plural:

  • There's some people in the waiting room. < informal >

occurs alongside:

  • There are some people in the waiting room.

(ii) It can act as subject in yes--no and tag questions:

  • Is there any more soup? There's nothing wrong, is there?

(iii) It can act as subject in infinitive and -ing clauses:

  • I don't want there to be any misunderstanding.

  • He was disappointed at there being so little to do.

  • There having been trouble over this in the past, I wanted to treat the matter cautiously.


SOURCE #3: In the 2002 reference grammar by Huddleston and Pullum et al., The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL), they go into this topic in even more depth, such as in their section "Evidence that subject function is uniquely filled by dummy it and there", on pages 241-3; and in their section "Dummy there vs locative there", on page 1391; and in general, pages 1390-1401.


"There" is where "it" resides.

It is raining.

  • No downvote there from me. But if you could expand usefully on your answer I'll definitely give you an up-vote! Commented Sep 23, 2014 at 14:01
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    Existential there is distinct phonologically, syntactically, and semantically from locative there. Dummy it has no meaning and doesn't reside anywhere.
    – user230
    Commented Sep 23, 2014 at 14:33
  • "The analysis of Present-day English existential sentences has given rise to many studies...some of the most important questions are unresolved (e.g. the issue of whether the expletive ‘there’ has retained something of its originally locative meaning ..." linguistlist.org/pubs/reviews/get-review.cfm?subid=4542270
    – TimR
    Commented Sep 23, 2014 at 15:08
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    @Araucaria Not typically. Consider "There's nothing there", in which the two are clearly different (there is no redundancy): the vowel in the first there is typically reduced, the first there is in subject position but the second is clearly not, and only the second there has any locative meaning. Compare "There's nothing here"―is it proximal or distal?
    – user230
    Commented Sep 24, 2014 at 3:42
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    @snailboat Was that comment for Tim? (I'm pretty familiar with there/there! especially the phonetics!) I was asking about it and there both 'residing' in subject position... Commented Sep 24, 2014 at 6:54

Whatever else it might be, There cannot be a subject. There is an adverb and is locative (usually emphasised) or existential (usually unemphasised).

"There is a cat in the garden" / "There are cats in the garden." -- "A cat is in the garden" / "Cats are in the garden."

Notice the subject verb agreement, and the inversion caused by the fronting phrase, "there". This is a vestige of the earlier Complement-V-S inversion

Dearly did I love her but long was the road to her heart."

This itself a vestige of "the verb as second element."

The unemphasised "there" is existential:

A: Unicorns are mythical.

B: No! There are unicorns. = No! Unicorns exist.

"**There * is a cat in the garden" = a cat *exists in the garden." thus giving meaning to the otherwise lexically empty "is".


A: “We have no actors who can play the hero.”

B: “That’s not true: there [existential] is John.” = “That’s not true: John exists (as a person to play the hero).” NB inversion.

A: “But John is in France.”

B: “No he’s not. [points] He is there [locative] near the coffee machine.” NB no inversion.

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