What does an expression "there + a verb" mean?



I'm curious whether it is correct to replace such sentence as "There is an interesting file in the root directory" with "An interesting file is in the root directory". I think the phrases are semantically equivalent. But I am not sure that other people will understand if I say "there lives an amazing fish in my pond".

So I am trying to figure out, is there some grammatical basis for usage of the expression "there + a verb"?

This question is not a duplicate because the reference points to a post where common usage of the word "there" is discussed, but here I am asking about particular applying of the expression "there + a verb".

Anton Marinin

Posted 2015-11-24T18:53:12.167

Reputation: 103


The construction is called "an existential clause". It's used in English to indicate the presence of something.

– CowperKettle – 2015-11-24T18:57:22.850

Thus I should construct my sentences using only "there + be" and "there + exist". Am I right? – Anton Marinin – 2015-11-24T19:14:05.173

4"There's an amazing fish living in my pond" is probably how most native speakers would tell you about it, at least in the American dialect I speak. You are more likely to find "An amazing fish lives in my pond" in a written work. For a long time, it was taught that to begin a sentence with existential-there was flabby style. – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2015-11-24T19:14:09.073

1There is a difference in emphasis between the two constructions I think. And also some slight gramaticality issues. The first pair of sentences works because the verb is "be" in both parts. So "There is an interesting..." and "An interesting file is..." both work fine. But in general the change has to be made as @TRomano pointed out. "There lives an amazing fish in my pond." is at the very least clumsy but I'd guess probably ungramatical. Even though "An amazing fish lives in my pond" is quite fine. – DRF – 2015-11-24T19:23:06.483

2"Once upon a time there lived a piece of wood."(The Adventures of Pinoccio) Is it correct? – V.V. – 2015-11-24T19:38:34.030

1Hmm having looked into CGEL the situation seems to be somewhat more complex. The construction of "There is/was ..." is apparently something called a dummy there. While in some cases you can change the sentence as you have indicated it is not always the case. An example where you cannot get rid of the there in a simple way is "There was an accident." As @CopperKettle points out the example you give is the case of an existential construction, which usually indicates the presence or existence of something though not always, ("There is also me to consider"). – DRF – 2015-11-24T19:40:47.070

1@V.V. Yes that sentence is perfectly fine and is the second case of the use of there in a "presentational clause". – DRF – 2015-11-24T19:41:46.140

There seems to be lots of verbs used after "there". – V.V. – 2015-11-24T19:50:51.713

1In response to your question in comments ("there+be" and "there +exist") the answer is no. It depends what you are saying consider "There still remain problems." or V.V's example. – DRF – 2015-11-24T19:56:38.407

@DRF: I'd say that "there lives a fish" is perfectly grammatical. Since you agree that "there lived a fish in the pond" is grammatical, you should also agree that "now there lives many fish in the pond" is. – user21820 – 2015-11-25T14:21:28.527

By the way, grammatical not grammatic, and semantically not semanticaly, and am not sure rather than haven't made sure. =) – user21820 – 2015-11-25T14:33:27.540



Aside from the general description of how the dummy subject there is used, there is a very important distinction that you have to keep in mind.

There is called existential there because it is used to express that something exists somewhere.

There is a book on the table.

It means there is one book (on the table) that has never been mentioned and nobody knows what kind of book that is. It could be rephrased to:

There exists a book on the table.

Now, contrast it with the following sentence:

*There is the book on the table.

This sentence doesn't work. Why? Because you used the definite article the before book. The is used to denote one or more people or things already mentioned or assumed to be common knowledge.

Now, it is no longer important whether a book exists or not. The important thing is "the book" (mentioned before) is put/placed on the table. Therefore, you have to use the following sentence:

The book is on the table.

The above contrast shows why there is called existential there.

Note: "There lives an amazing fish in my pond" does not use the verb be. As commented above, "There is an amazing fish in my pond" would be better to express existence of an amazing fish. You don't have to to use living between fish and in in the sentence.


Posted 2015-11-24T18:53:12.167


After a bit more thinking, your answer is actually not quite right about the impossibility of "There is the ...". It naturally occurs in the following context: "What do you have here?" "As you can see, there is the book on the table." – user21820 – 2015-11-27T06:42:00.810

@user21820 You are absolutely wrong. Your conversation doesn't work. If you ask "what do you have here?", you are looking at something that you can't identify. Do you really think the conversation works? – None – 2015-11-27T06:45:44.030

You're quite quick to jump to a conclusion. The conversation might take place with both parties in a room and who can both see a single book on a table and not much else in the room. In such a scenario it is perfectly valid. – user21820 – 2015-11-27T07:25:34.787

@user21820 You don't seem to understand. If there is a book on the table, you can tell there is a book on the table. Even if you ask "what do you have here?", you are asking "what kind of book is it?". And the other party would never reply "there is the book on the table" unless he is drunk or stupid. I really don't understand what you are trying to mean. You don't make sense and neither is your conversation. – None – 2015-11-27T07:29:54.403

It is only possible in the specific scenario where both parties clearly can see the book on the table and nothing much else, and the answerer is simply stating the obvious, so he can use the definite article when referring to the book, since it is within the world-view of the asker. It would be invalid if the asker did not know about the book on the table, but in the scenario I gave in my comments he does, hence it is valid. – user21820 – 2015-11-27T08:01:36.353

In other words, such a response would imply that the answerer is just implying that there is nothing else that is there in the room except for what the asker already sees, namely the book on the table. – user21820 – 2015-11-27T08:03:14.410

@user21820 As I said again, your conversation doesn't work. If there is nothing else in the room, nobody would ask "what do you have here?". You know why? You can see the book yourself. – None – 2015-11-27T08:11:34.297

As I said twice already, it can work in specific situations. For example the asker could be suspecting that there are hidden things in the room. Your insistence that it is impossible is weird. – user21820 – 2015-11-27T08:22:06.377

@user21820 I think you started off the wrong foot contradicting yourself from the beginning to the above comment. If the asker were suspecting there are hidden things in the room, why would he ask "what do you have here" looking at a book on the table? Do you really think you are making sense? I will stop wasting my time on this train of useless comments. – None – 2015-11-27T08:26:00.760

You are the one making useless comments, denying the possibility of such constructions. Here are some from the BBC of exactly the same type: "there is the large, round, expanding molecular gas cloud", "there is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself", "There is the small matter of the inaptly named demilitarized zone in the way", "there is the ECB's commitment to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro", "there is the additional threat posed by a wolf with rabies". If you refuse to accept my scenario, at least you've to accept the ones from BBC. – user21820 – 2015-11-27T08:52:52.197

@user21820 I will explain to you why you started *off the wrong foot*. *There* in those examples are not "existential there". It is used as an adverb as in "*Here* is the ECB's commitment to do whatever...". "Here" is not a subject like "existential there". Now you see the difference? I didn't say "there" can't be used as an adverb. I was explaining about *existential there which is used as a subject of a sentence*. Your examples don't work. Understood? – None – 2015-11-27T08:58:37.837

You're simply wrong! All the examples I cited from the BBC are existential. For example "Then there is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself" asserts that there is a danger. And what kind of danger? The danger that ... I'm a native speaker. You on the other hand seem to be unacquainted with the finer usages of the English language. You furthermore use idioms wrongly, probably thinking that they make you look better, such as "started off the wrong foot" when it should be "started off on the wrong foot". – user21820 – 2015-11-27T09:04:29.197

@user21820 Why do you say "there is *a* danger", then? Regarding "start off the wrong foot", using "on" is more popular in AmE. Both can actually work. If you Google the idiom, you get more hits for *start off the wrong foot* than *start off on the wrong foot*. Have you tried? Be careful when you say *wrongly*. – None – 2015-11-27T09:18:46.317

Google is a very unreliable indicator of correct usage of English, if you didn't know that. Be careful when you make claims based on google!! I think you're too insistent that English must conform to your 'logical' interpretation of it. The fact is that English existential "there is" can do a double job. In the construction "There is the ...", it first conveys the existential assertion, and then refers to something that the audience is expected to know. This is why this construction is used often to draw attention to the existence of something that the audience should know but needs reminding. – user21820 – 2015-11-27T09:28:28.363

@user21820 You can go and complain to Google, not to me as I don't think you need a preposition *on* there. Be careful when you make claims *not* based on Google!!! You just started with the wrong example and that led to this train of comments. Actually we are talking about the same thing. Contrast "there is a boy" with "a boy is there". – None – 2015-11-27T09:31:01.830

1And by the way, your incorrect usage of wrong feet does not seem to appear in any dictionary, so you shouldn't be so quick to claim that it is allowed. We're not talking about common slang here, otherwise you're fine in using Google to estimate slang usage. – user21820 – 2015-11-27T09:31:03.507

1You clearly don't know the origin of the idiom you wanted to use. "Start off" is a phrasal verb meaning "begin"... You can begin "on the wrong foot" but you cannot "begin the wrong foot"!! – user21820 – 2015-11-27T09:32:08.167

@user21820 Shall we stop here? I don't think your comments add any more value here. You made your point. I made mine. OK? – None – 2015-11-27T09:33:07.663

We can stop of course, but you keep saying my comments are meaningless or add no value. Do you expect me to say yours are meaningful and add value? – user21820 – 2015-11-27T09:34:02.867

@user21820 Why do you think "start off" is a phrasal verb means "begin"? Start and begin mean the same thing most of the time. Why don't you post your own answer if you could add value to this community? Your first example is completely useless and not to the point. If you had posted the BBC examples in the first comment, we would not have this train of comments now. – None – 2015-11-27T09:45:57.577

1You can say "start off on the journey" but not "start off the journey". However you can say "start off the fireworks". You are confusing two different semantic meanings for "start off". As for "begin", you can say "Begin the journey" but not "begin on the journey". Yet you can say "begin on the right path" but not "begin the right path". You could ask a new question about the fine distinctions between "start" and "begin" and their phrasal verbs, if you want. English is just like that, and we native speakers have somehow learnt to put up with it. – user21820 – 2015-11-27T09:50:31.670

Honestly, I'm amazed at how ridiculously complicated English is... – user21820 – 2015-11-27T09:52:19.940

@user21820 I agree with you English is complicated. You can start a journey, you can start off a journey, not always/necessarily start off on a journey. That's how the language works. The same applies to the *existential there*. – None – 2015-11-27T10:03:27.920

You still want to argue? Sigh... – user21820 – 2015-11-27T10:04:39.150


Actually your two equivalents are not so equivalent, although in most contexts they would imply the same thing.

There is an interesting file in the root directory.

This is an existential statement that asserts the existence of an entity that can be described as "interesting file in the root directory".

An interesting file is in the root directory.

This does not really have the same connotation, but instead asserts first the existence of an instance of an "interesting file", via the indefinite article "An", and then asserts something more about that entity, namely that it is "in the root directory".

You may still think there is no difference. If so, consider the following possible wider contexts:

There is an interesting file in the root directory of each computer in this network.

An interesting file is in the root directory of every computer in this network.

The first means that each computer has an interesting file, possibly different for different computers. The second means that there is a single interesting file that is on every computer.

There lives an amazing fish in my pond.

An amazing fish lives in my pond.

Similarly your fish-pond example has the same fine distinctions that show up only in certain contexts.

So I am trying to figure out, is there some grammatical basis for usage of the expression "there + verb"?

Well there is a grammatical basis, as shown above by the fine distinctions between such constructions and the apparently equivalent ones without the "there". This also explains why all bare existential statements of the form "There is [a[n]] X." cannot be rephrased except as "[A[n]] X exists.". Some other usages include:

There comes a truck loaded with stones.

A truck comes, loaded with stones.

There flew in a dozen birds through the window.

A dozen birds flew in through the window.

There stood a lone pillar in the courtyard.

A lone pillar stood in the courtyard.

There arose a dispute about money.

A dispute arose about money.

In most cases, it is of the form "There V X [A]." where V is an intransitive verb (no object), X is a noun phrase that is the subject of V, and A is an optional adverbial phrase that modifies X if possible or V otherwise.


Posted 2015-11-24T18:53:12.167

Reputation: 767

How come there is no single example that uses "the" in your answer? Aren't you actually contradicting yourself? Contrast "A boy is there" and "There is a boy". Do they have a different connotation? – None – 2015-11-27T10:14:00.523

Just because I don't mention something does not mean I deny it! So I'm not at all contradicting myself. And yes there is a difference between your two sentences. "There" is an adverb of location in the former but not in the latter. So? I really don't know what you bring up these examples for. – user21820 – 2015-11-27T10:17:36.643

I mean you said "This does not really have the same connotation..." so I am curious to know why you think they are different in meaning except that positions have been changed. Also, I like to know why you didn't list any examples of "existential there" which use the definite article. If you are sure, please show me in your answer that the existential there can have the definite article like in the BBC news articles. – None – 2015-11-27T10:30:23.903

I see. So does my reply about "there" being an adverb of location in one but not the other answer your query? The reason I didn't list those examples in my answer is because I always aim to give the most concise answer that is reasonable for a beginning learner of English, so I give canonical examples and usually omit rare usages. But if you feel that it is appropriate, I can incorporate one or two examples that I mentioned in my comments to you from BBC. – user21820 – 2015-11-27T10:36:13.157

@Rathony: For example, "There is a boy here." shows why "there" in "A boy is there." is not existential at all. Sorry I forgot to ping you both times because it's now under my answer lol. – user21820 – 2015-11-27T10:38:20.440

Now you see? We are talking about the same thing after all. Furthermore, the examples from BBC are not *existential there*. They used *the* because people generally know about them. Then, it is not introducing something new as information about existence. The danger is there makes perfect sense. That's why it is not an *existential there* usage. People don't say "A god is there" because you never know where. People do say "There is a God". Important thing is A God exists, *not* a God is there. The same thing applies to "there is a boy". You want to mean "one boy exists". – None – 2015-11-27T10:44:08.030

@Rathony: Nah we still disagree. Let me try another example. Do you agree that we can say "There are these loaves here."? If you agree then you can see clearly that "there is" is an existential construction, even though there is the determiner "these" following it. – user21820 – 2015-11-27T11:06:12.730

That example is as much ridiculous as your first example in the above train. You are looking at them. Do you see these leaves and those leaves? They are just leaves. If you want to say "leaves do exist in your garden", you just say "there are (some) (fallen) leaves". You never say "there are those leaves". What those leaves? Those leaves that fell last month? Then, they have existed for one month. *NO MORE EXISTENTIAL!!!* – None – 2015-11-27T11:09:25.113

@Rathony: If you say that what I say is ridiculous one more time, it will be the end of our discussion. I am a native speaker and it is perfectly valid and in common usage in everyday speech. It is rarer in the formal register, so the examples from BBC are the best instances of this kind of construction. You can say "There are these leaves here in one pile and those leaves there in another pile" and it will be a perfectly valid existential statement, whether you like it or not. – user21820 – 2015-11-27T11:13:35.727

@Rathony: And I said "loaves" not "leaves" but never mind. – user21820 – 2015-11-27T11:14:43.863

You use "these" to identify a specific thing close at hand or being indicated or experienced. That is already known to both parties. For example, "there are these (those is better I think) loaves that I mentioned this morning. They are very delicious and try them". That means you already mentioned the existence of these loaves before. Then it is no more a new thing. If you are introducing new loaves that you've just baked, you have to say "there are (some) loaves on the table". If you put "these" or "those" before "loaves", they don't indicate new existence any more. BBC examples are same. – None – 2015-11-27T11:22:45.130

@Rathony: So by existential "there is" you mean that it refers to something unknown to the audience? I agree that some of the BBC examples have the definite noun phrase referring to a previously introduced concept or something that the audience is expected to know, however not all of them are. However, since you might find them unconvincing, I went to search for more. One is "But notwithstanding such concerns, there is the unpalatable fact for U.S. smelters that in an oversupplied global market-place they cannot compete with the new generation of smelters in China's northwest." – user21820 – 2015-11-27T11:54:44.320

@Rathony: It's too much of a stretch to say that this unpalatable fact is something that the audience is expected to know. In fact, you definitely cannot say "There is a fact that ...". So what is happening? It is because the fact is always definite, never indefinite, so the definite article is used appropriately, totally independently of the existential connotation expressed by "there is". – user21820 – 2015-11-27T11:58:31.037

You have just changed the subject to *articles*. The definite article the suits better with nouns such as "fact and truth" because they are more idiomatic. There is no reason not to use *an* before "unpalatable fact" in your example, But people use *the* as it has been the way they have used it. One more important thing is American smelters and steel manufactures have been decimated for the last 40 years. That's the well-known fact. Again, it is not a good example. People know there have been some problems with smelters and it is not a *news/new information* to them. – None – 2015-11-27T12:06:59.323

Also, your assertion that the *fact* is always definite, never indefinite is wrong. – None – 2015-11-27T12:08:53.610

@Rathony: When I said "definite" I meant facts referred to by "fact that ...", not facts in general. Sorry if that wasn't clear. But let's not argue; we obviously do not agree. – user21820 – 2015-11-27T12:12:06.647

Yes, good idea. I didn't downvote your post. :) – None – 2015-11-27T12:13:23.587