161. Presenting Information with “There”

Certain types of information in professional writing very commonly follow an introductory “there”

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TYPES OF “THERE” AT THE START OF A SENTENCE

Most people are familiar with two quite different ways of using there at the start of a sentence. Sometimes it is an ordinary place adverb, similar to here and pronounced with the stressed vowel /eƏ/ (for details of “stress”, see 125. Stress & Emphasis). At other times it is what grammar books call “existential”, pronounced with the unstressed vowel /Ə/ and normally followed by BE and an “indefinite” noun (one without the), like this:

(a) There are several factors able to influence demand.

This kind of there sentence usually features at a fairly elementary level in English Language courses, but the full variety of its forms and uses, especially in professional writing, is rarely appreciated (see 88. Exotic Grammar Structures 1, #4). I hope in this post to make several observations about this variety that are not common in English coursebooks.

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DETAILED FEATURES OF EXISTENTIAL “THERE”

The unstressed there at the start of sentences like (a) is not usually considered to be an adverb like the stressed form. Rather, it is an “empty” subject of the verb after it, similar to the “empty” use of it (see 103. Using “it” for a Subsequent Verb). The verb, however, agrees not with there, but with the noun or pronoun after it (its “complement”). Sentence (a), for example, needs there are, not there is, because of the plurality of factors. For the normal rules of verb agreement, see 12. Singular and Plural Verb Choices.

Existential there does not have to be the very first word in a sentence. Quite often it can follow an adverb-like expression, e.g.:

(b) At the end there is a list of references.

If the adverb expression names a place, as here, there can be left out (At the end is …).

Existential there is generally said to be desirable in sentences where the verb is BE (or one of a small group of alternatives, such as ARISE and SEEM) and the first word(s) would, without there, be an indefinite noun. Thus, there in sentence (a) prevents the first words being Several factors are able …, and in (b) prevents beginning A list … .

The term “existential” is given to this kind of there because sentences with it are considered to express the existence of something. However, I feel that the term is confusing because the idea of “existence-expressing” can be understood in different ways. The most basic sense is the denial of non-existence: an assertion of the existence of something made for anyone who believes the opposite. In speech, the verb BE would be emphasised, like this:

(c) There IS a way to travel forwards in time.

Any subsequent elaboration of such a statement is likely to try and prove the assertion of existence.

An alternative kind of existence-expressing, however, is not a denial of non-existence, but is rather just information-giving. The existence is one that the reader is expected to be ignorant of rather than unsure about. Sentence (a) above is likely to be expressing existence of this kind. Any subsequent elaboration is likely to give details of the mentioned factors able to influence demand. Similarly, sentence (b) is giving information about a list of references.

Rather than calling this second use of there “existential”, I prefer the term “presentational”. In the rest of this post, it is this meaning of “existence” that is involved.

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SOME SPECIAL USES OF PRESENTATIONAL “THERE”

Often the need for a presentational there can be identified from the sort of information that is going to be supplied. An example from everyday English is stories, which frequently begin Once there was … . In formal writing, the following are some common kinds of information associated with presentational there.

1. Lists

A list that is the main topic of a sentence or paragraph normally needs to be introduced in some way. Statements with there are very commonly used for this purpose (see 55. Sentence Lists 2: Main-Message and 162. The Language of Classification). Contrary to the beliefs of some writers who are not very familiar with English, they are not informal in any way.

When the list occupies a single sentence, the introductory there statement should be separated from it by a colon (i.e. should be in the same sentence – see 55. Sentence Lists 2: Main-Message). By contrast, a there sentence before a multi-sentence list needs a full stop (see 122. Signpost Words in Multi-Sentence Lists). Sentence (a) above could be one of this kind.

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2. Comments on an Action or Situation

An example of this use of presentational there is:

(c) There is a benefit in travelling widely.

The “comment” here is expressed by benefit, and travelling widely is an action being commented on. In general, the comment word will be the noun after there is, and the associated action or situation will be an -ing verb (and any other words it necessitates) placed after a preposition that is typically in. Here is another example:

(d) There is danger in riding a motorbike.

Sentences like this are very similar in meaning to the kind analysed in the Guinlist post 103. Using “it” for a Subsequent Verb. Indeed (c) and (d) can both be paraphrased as one of those:

(c1) It is beneficial to travel widely.

(d1) It is dangerous to ride a motorbike.

It will be observed here that after it is there is commonly an adjective instead of a noun (though this is not compulsory), and that no preposition comes next. The verb at the end will have either to or -ing depending on meaning (see the relevant post for an explanation).

My intuition as an experienced English speaker is that it beginnings are more frequently used for commenting than there ones. One possible reason for the there option might be the fact that it at the start of a sentence has a very common alternative use – back-referring instead of forward-referring – which might confuse the reader when there is a preceding noun which it could be understood as referring to. Choosing the there option in such situations can guard against misinterpretation.

Not every adjective after it has a related noun that can be used after there. No equivalent, for example, seems to exist of advisable, obvious or possible. Other adjectives with an equivalent include advantageous (advantage), appealing (appeal), attractive (attraction), challenging (a challenge), difficult (difficulty), harmful (harm), hazardous (a hazard), pointless (no point), problematic (a problem), profitable (profit), promising (promise), rewarding (reward), risky (risk), satisfying (satisfaction), useful, (usefulness), value (valuable) and worth (worth).

In addition, there are some special expressions that typically follow there is, such as great potential and little/much to be gained (+ from). Moreover, adjectives with no corresponding noun can often be combined with something, as in something special and something sickening.

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3. Components

The verb that is most obviously used for naming components is HAVE (see 116. Rarer Uses of HAVE). However, there sentences seem equally common, as in this example:

(e) In many churches there is a tower (above the main structure).

As this shows, there may or may not be extra information after the named component (tower), often indicating a position or location. The added words are likely to begin with either a preposition, as above, or a participle such as dominating or located. Note that an ordinary (non-participle) verb form is not possible directly after there is and a noun: which or that must go in between (see 52. Participles Placed Just after Their Noun).

There seems to be very little difference between using there is in (e) and HAVE (Many churches have …). However, it may be that there is is a means of overcoming the inability of possession-meaning HAVE to be used in the passive voice (see 113. Verbs that cannot be Passive).

Passive verbs generally enable the subject of their corresponding active form either to be dropped or to exchange places with the object. Both of these effects can be achieved by using there are instead of HAVE. In (e), using HAVE would necessitate mentioning many churches because it would be its subject, whereas using there are allows those words to be dropped because they are no longer a subject but are in a preposition phrase (after in).

Moreover, this same transfer to a preposition phrase also allows the subject of HAVE to be placed later in the sentence, for example after tower in (e). The reason is that the preposition phrase is adverb-like, and hence offers more freedom concerning its sentence position (see 120. Six Things to Know about Adverbs, #3). A later sentence position is often desirable when a word conveys the main information in the sentence (see 156. Mentioning What the Reader Knows Already, #10).

An alternative to the verb HAVE is POSSESS. This does have a passive form (is possessed by), but it is rather clumsy. The there wording hence has the extra value of enabling an undesirable passive to be avoided, rather like the options considered in this blog under the heading 27. How to Avoid Passive Verbs.

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