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My grammar book says it's "There is a cafe at the corner" but can't say "A cafe is at the corner". Is it really so? I feel that the rule is prohibiting free ways of expressing things.

[Edit] It seems like my careless switching words made confusions and problems. I'd like to go back to the original sentences: "There is a restaurant around the corner." vs. "A restaurant is around the corner."

Maybe 'can't say' was too much and I should have said 'don't say', my grammar book is written in my native language.

So, now I understand that people usually say "There is a restaurant around the corner" in a day-to-day conversation, This is the common way of saying, but in a novel you might also find "A restaurant is around the corner", or you can use it when you are giving a direction.

So both are grammatically correct, but the nuance is slightly different and not really convertible each other. I hope I got this correct.

  • Does the grammar book give a reason? – user3169 Feb 9 '15 at 3:36
  • No it doesn't give any reason for it.. – karlalou Feb 9 '15 at 3:59
  • Well, that wouldn't be a good thing to say when giving directions ... – Araucaria Feb 10 '15 at 1:52
  • You really really really should not edit your question to ask about different sentence after you have one or more answers to the original question. This can invalidate one or more of the answers. If you want to add an additional example sentence and ask the same question, that is fine. – user6951 Feb 10 '15 at 1:54
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    @karlalou You need to look at the number of pages at the bottom there. Soemtimes Google gives you a weird number on the first page. If you look at the second page you'll see that there's only 11 results altogether. One is from you, five are examples of bad grammar from grammar books and the others are examples like "This little gem of a restaurant is around the corner from my house"! That's why we use Google books, not just a google search ;) – Araucaria Feb 10 '15 at 16:02
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EDIT to Add:
A cafe is at the corner is a perfectly fine English sentence. Even The cafe is on the corner is fine--even if you have never heard of this cafe before. Someone can tell you The cafe is on the corner.

Origial answer:
This is an arbitrary rule that is limiting your ways of expressing things. Both sentences are fine. The use of "there is' is the so-called existential construction. It puts a "dummy they" in as the subject and moves the real (or "logical") subject of the verb to the predicate side of the verb to be.

As the wikipedia description says, this construction is used to refer to the presence or existence of something, from There is a God to There is a turd in your commode.

So, "There is a cafe at the corner" declares the existence of a cafe at the corner. However, in a description of a town, A cafe is at the corner works as well. Either one works fine when giving directions, although the existential construction may be more common.

One can also say Here is a cafe at the corner and, again, There is a cafe at the corner, showing that these uses of there and here are deitic, which just describes something from the place in space of the speaker. "There" would mean "over there at that corner" while "here" would mean "right here at this corner." Note the change from the determiner the to the deitic or demonstrative pronouns that and this, which both also reference the cafe from the place in space of the speaker.

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    I would say "The cafe is at the corner" or "A cafe is on the corner". I'm not sure exactly why though. – ColleenV Feb 9 '15 at 3:58
  • Maybe.. that is because 'at' feels more direct and 'on' feels more vague? Actually.. the grammar book uses 'restaurant' and 'around', It says say "There is a restaurant around the corner" but don't say "A restaurant is around the corner". I think it's not so bad to say "A restaurant is around the corner" to someone looking for a place to eat his lunch. – karlalou Feb 9 '15 at 4:31
  • @karlalou I think prepositions of place are difficult for native speakers to explain why they use one over the other - there is an extensive answer about in/on/at that might help: ell.stackexchange.com/a/40488/9161 – ColleenV Feb 9 '15 at 4:35
  • There is not the preposition there. It ain't deictic at all. And this word there has no relationship with the word here. Lastly, A cafe is at the corner would not be good in a guidebook :( Here is a cafe at the corner is a subject complement inversion. The grammatical subject of that sentence is a corner. In the existential reading of There's a cafe on the corner, the word there is the subject of the sentence. On the corner is a complement of the verb BE! – Araucaria Feb 9 '15 at 13:14
  • Are you saying that there is deictic? Are you saying it's the same type of word as here? Also I'm not sure your take on A cafe is on the corner and The cafe is on the corner is correct. What do you feel the difference is between the two sentences? [Do you want to continue this discussion in chat?] :) – Araucaria Feb 10 '15 at 0:44
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A cafe is on the corner.

In English we like to put new information at the end of the sentence where it has emphasis. We like to put old information at the beginning of the sentence. Because we have already talked about these things they are easier to process. If we don't have any old information in a sentence, we like to put information that helps the listener to understand the situation, at the beginning. This is usually information about times or places. So at the beginning of a new piece of writing you are very likely to see sentences that begin like this:

  • In nineteenth century England ...
  • In The USA ....
  • At the beginning of the second world war ...

When we have a sentence like A cafe is on the corner this sentence is difficult for the listener to process. Why? Well the part a cafe is new information here. We know this is the first time we talked about the cafe because we said a cafe and not the cafe. Because of this we are more likely to use an existential construction. We are more likely to use a sentence with There is or There were. The word there doesn't mean anything, so there is no new information at the beginning of the sentence. I instead the cafe and corner both come at the end of the sentence where they are easy to understand, easy to process.

Notice that if we talked about the cafe before, then the Original Poster's example is better:

  • The cafe's on the corner.

This sounds much better because we know which cafe we are talking about. We are not introducing something new at the beginning of the sentence.

So if we want to say a cafe is on the corner how can we say it to make it easier to listen to, easier to process? There are two options. We can use an existential construction:

  • There's a cafe on the corner.

Or we can use SUBJECT COMPLEMENT INVERSION. This is when we put the Complement of the verb BE at the beginning of the sentence and we put the Subject of the sentence after the verb. Usually when we do this, the Complement gives us information about locations or times. Look at the sentence:

  • A cafe is on the corner.

Here the subject is of the verb BE is a cafe, the Locative Complement ( - the complement which tells us about the location of the cafe) is on the corner. If we use Subject Compelement inversion then we get this sentence:

  • On the corner is a cafe.

This sentence is also good.

The Original Poster's Question

A cafe is on the corner is not a good sentence in English, although it is perfectly grammatical. The reason is that it puts new information that we haven't talked about yet at the beginning of the sentence. We can make the sentence better by putting the locative complement at the beginning. (Locative Complements are easy for listeners to understand.) Alternatively we can use an existential construction:

  • On the corner is a cafe.
  • There is a cafe on the corner.

Notice that usually when we use an existential construction, the noun that we are interested in is new information. Existential sentences with noun phrases beginning with the are quite rare. This is because we like to use the existential construction to make new information easy to process.

Hope this is helpful!

  • The original sentence was "A cafe is at the corner." If we use on instead, the indefinite article sounds OK to me, so I'm a little confused. – ColleenV Feb 9 '15 at 13:18
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    +1 I especially like "A cafe is on the corner is not a good sentence in English, although it is perfectly grammatical." It reminds everyone that there are things beyond grammar. – Damkerng T. Feb 9 '15 at 13:26
  • @ColleenV "A cafe is on the corner" is grammatically fine, but unusual because its less easy to process. Compare A pharmacy is opposite the shop and There's a pharmacy opposite the shop or Opposite the shop. There are special information packaging considerations which might make us choose one over the other. So in response to the echo question "What's on the corner?" the answer A cafe is on the corner is perfectly ok. But in general we need special reasons to choose one form over another. If you got a guidebook to Paris which started with A museum's in the centre, it would be odd:) – Araucaria Feb 9 '15 at 13:28
  • I'm just confused because you've substituted my proposed sentence for the sentence in the original question. It's the use of at that really bugs me, not the use of the indefinite article, which is grammatically ok, but I would not use unless I was writing some sort of narrative. – ColleenV Feb 9 '15 at 13:49
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    +1 for A sentence like "A cafe is on the corner" is difficult for the listener to process. "A cafe is on the corner" is a simple observation. I think if I were to say those words, I might say them as an exclamation ("A cafe is on the corner!" – imagine there had been an run-down abandoned building at the corner, and someone had renovated it and turned it into a cozy cafe). But people don't generally talk in sentences that way, not unless there is more context, which is why it can be so difficult to analyze these little snippets that O.P.s keep putting in ELL questions. – J.R. Jan 15 '16 at 10:48
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I agree with δοῦλος' excellent answer.

If you have not already discussed the café, both choices in the original post are acceptable English. "There is a café at the corner" sounds more natural to my (American) ear than "A café is at the corner". If speaking informally, "There's a café at the corner" sounds even more natural than "There is a café at the corner".

If both the speaker and the listener already know about the café, the second choice becomes "The café is at the corner". If the purpose of the conversation was to locate either the café or the corner, "The café is at the corner" is more natural than "There's a café at the corner".

If the purpose of the conversation is to discuss something special about the café, and if the feature of the café is mentioned in the same sentence, the sentence can start with "The corner café" or "There's a café at the corner". For example:

  • The corner café sells Tosci's ice cream.
  • The café at the corner sells Tosci's ice cream.
  • There's a café at the corner that sells Tosci's ice cream.
  • Of course the café on Lexington Square sells Tosci's ice cream -- it's Tosci's!
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AT is usually used for specific places or locations: places that are unique in some special way.

"I am at the train-station"
"I am at home"
"I am at a café"
(These examples are opposed to the street corner, which is one of many street corners)

The preposition "at" refers to your absolute location, which means that it does not indicate where you are inside of the place, only that you are there.

Now when we are referring to relative location we use ON or IN. Where is the person in relation to the location in question? Certain places are by definition relative and not "special" like your home or a train station. Examples include the

my couch (" I am on my couch at home ")
5th floor (" I am on the fifth floor " )
Building (" I am in a building " )
Street corner (" I am on the street corner in front of the cafe ")

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