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 the first mention of the main character in a story, which frequently follows the words Once there was … . In formal writing, the following are some common kinds of information associated with presentational there.

1. General Ideas about to be Repeated More Precisely

It is quite often necessary to mention something in a general way before identifying it more precisely. Here is an example from the Guinlist post 117. Saying More Precisely What is Meant:

(d) There is a workable strategy for reducing traffic: road charges.

In this case, the more precise expression road charges is unitary, but quite often it will be a list instead (see 55. Sentence Lists 2: Main-Message and 162. The Language of Classification). In either case, beginning with there are is a common way of writing the general idea, though not the only one. Contrary to the beliefs of some writers who are not very familiar with English, it is not informal in any way.

Sometimes there is a colon after the general idea as in (d), and sometimes a full stop. A colon is necessary if the more precise information is a single noun expression, like road charges in (d), or a short list. A choice between a colon and a full stop exists when the more precise information is able to stand alone as a single sentence. A full stop becomes necessary, on the other hand, when the precise information needs to be given in multiple sentences. For an example, see 122. Signpost Words in Multi-Sentence Lists.

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2. Characterisation of an Action or Situation

An example of this use of presentational there is:

(e) There is (a) benefit in travelling widely.

The characterisation here is expressed by benefit (used countably or uncountably), and it applies to the action travelling widely. In general, the characterising word will be the noun after there is, and the action or situation will be written next, usually after the preposition in but sometimes after that:

(f) There is no surprise (in the fact) that winters are warmer.

Sentences with a characterising there are also considered in the post 78. Infinitive versus Preposition after Nouns. They are very similar to the kind of it sentence that is the topic of 103. Using “it” for a Subsequent Verb. Indeed they can often be paraphrased with a starting it:

(e1) It is beneficial to travel widely.

(f1) It is not surprising (not a surprise) that winters are warmer.

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 is involved. The verb at the end has either to or that (-ing is also possible instead of to, depending on meaning – see the post on “it” sentences for an explanation).

My intuition as an experienced English speaker is that it beginnings are more frequent 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. Examples of others that do are advantageous (advantage), appealing (appeal), attractive (attraction), challenging (a challenge), difficult (difficulty), harmful (harm), hazardous (a hazard), pointless (no point), possible (a possibility + that), problematic (a problem), profitable (profit), promising (promise), rewarding (reward), risky (a risk), satisfying (satisfaction), useful, (usefulness), valuable (value) and worth (worth).

Adjectives whose corresponding noun cannot be used with presentational there include advisable, compulsory, desirable, disappointing, easy, important, surprising (despite the possibility of no surprise) and obvious.

In addition, there are some special expressions typically used only after there is. One, no doubt, is considered in depth in another post (157. Tricky Word Contrasts 5, #1). Others include great potential, hope (+ that), and little/much to be gained (+ from). Moreover, adjectives with no corresponding noun can sometimes be put into a there is sentence by adding something, as in something special and something disappointing (+ about).

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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:

(g) 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 (g) 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 (g), 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 (g). 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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