161. Special Uses of “There” Sentences

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



Most people are familiar with two very different kinds of there. One is the ordinary place adverb, the opposite of here, which is normally stressed and pronounced with the strong vowel /eә/. The other kind goes before BE (or a rare alternative like SEEM), the two being pronounced weakly together – /ծә ‘rɪz/or /’ծә rә/ – to introduce an indefinite noun (one without the), like this:

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

This second kind of there is in grammar books generally called “existential”. It has a variety of special uses, some very commonly encountered in elementary English Language courses. However, the full range of uses is rarely set out in full even for advanced learners (see 88. Exotic Grammar Structures 1, #4).  My aim in this post is to present some uses that seem especially important in professional writing.



The weak there in sentences like (a) is not usually viewed as an adverb like the stressed form. Rather, it tends to be seen as an “empty” subject of the verb after it, similar to the “empty” use of it (see 103. Postponed Subjects in “It” Sentences). 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.

There in sentences like (a) is not always the first word. Quite often it will 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…).

The value of there in sentences like (a) and (b) is generally said to be its prevention of BE coming after an indefinite noun subject. Thus, there in (a) prevents the first words being Several factors are able …, and in (b) prevents beginning A list … .



Two questions raised by the above description are why English speakers do not like to start sentences with an indefinite subject of BE, and what exactly “existential” means. A possible answer to the first is that indefinite nouns tend to provide “new” information – the focus of the sentence – whereas the start of a sentence is more associated in English with “given” or familiar information (see 156. Mentioning what the Reader Knows Already). Putting there before the verb solves this problem by enabling the indefinite noun to be placed in a more natural later position.

With regard to the second question, to say that “existential” there expresses the existence of something is rather vague. Compare its use in There is a possibility of time travel and There is a drought. Although both contain the idea of existence, it is not the same kind: the first is absolute and eternal (see 181. Expressing Possibility), the second situational and temporary. The first is also present in sentence (a) above, the second in (b). Interestingly, only the first is easily paraphrased with the verb EXIST (a possibility exists of…).

One further observation relates to the expression is there. Standard English sometimes uses it instead of exists or there is, but quite rarely – perhaps only when both the adverbial and existential meanings of there are involved and is present would be an alternative. In some other varieties of English, on the other hand, especially in India and Africa, is there is much more common. Speakers of those varieties need to be aware of this difference when attempting to write Standard English.



The question of when to use “existential” there is not satisfactorily answered by saying merely that it enables the existence of something to be expressed. We need to know when there might be preferable to other existence-expressing possibilities. 

Outside of professional writing, a well-known use of there is for introducing a principal story character (there was once…). In professional writing, there are a number of fairly common uses besides the obvious one of stating absolute existence.

1. Reporting without Giving a Source

When the originator of reported speech need not or cannot be mentioned, use must often still be made of a reporting word (see 22. Multiple Speakers in a Text). If this word is a verb, the originator can be left unmentioned by making the subject it, like this:

(c) It is said that top footballers earn too much.

A reporting verb can also have part of the reported statement as its subject in order not to mention the originator, as in Top footballers are said to earn… .

On the other hand, if the reporting word is a noun, a there sentence is a useful means of leaving the originator unmentioned. With there, the underlined part of (c) might be there is a belief… . Other common expressions with this kind of there include there is a call for…, there are reports that…, there are suggestions that…, there was an order to… and there is a questioning of… .


2. Stating a Number

After BE, English rarely has numbers by themselves (*…were five). Instead, they usually need a following noun, and there added at the start (There were five …s). For details, see 184. Adjectives with Restricted Positioning.


3. Introducing an idea through its General Description

There sentences are one of various ways to do this. Here is an example from 117. Saying More Precisely What is Meant:

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

Here, the introduced idea road charges is one item, but quite often it will be a list instead (see 162. The Language of Classification). Beginning with there in this way is not informal like its equivalent in some other languages.

Sometimes there is a colon after the introduction as in (d), and sometimes a full stop. A colon is necessary if the following idea is not a possible sentence, like road charges above. A choice between a colon and a full stop exists when the idea can stand alone as a single sentence. A full stop becomes necessary when the idea needs to be given in multiple sentences. For an example, see 122. Signpost Words in Multi-Sentence Lists.


4. Characterising an Action or Situation

An example of this use is:

(e) There is value in travelling widely.

The characterisation here is expressed by the underlined words, and is being applied to the action travelling widely. In general, there needs to combine with BE and a noun like value, and the characterised action or situation will come next, linked usually by in, but sometimes by 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 features in 103. Postponed Subjects in “It” Sentences. 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.

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 a characterising 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 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).


5. Naming a Component

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 steeple (on a tower).

As this shows, there may or may not be extra information after the named component (steeple), often indicating a position or location. The added words are likely to begin with either a preposition like on above, or a participle such as dominating or located, or an ordinary verb after which. Care must be taken not to use an ordinary verb without which, e.g. *…there is a steeple dominates…, or a participle with it, e.g. *…which dominating…. (see 52. Participles Placed Just after their Noun).

There seems to be very little difference between using there in (g) and HAVE (Many churches have …). Consider what happens, though, if we want to reverse the order of the two nouns churches and steeple. We would not then be able to use HAVE, since it cannot be used in the passive voice with its possession meaning (see 113, Verbs that cannot be Passive). However, there would still be possible: we would just move in many churches to the end of the sentence.

This ability of there is to act like a passive of HAVE seems a very useful one to know about. The only other alternative is to use the passive form is possessed by, which can sound rather clumsy.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.