Thursday, June 23, 2011

Confusing words - there

Sometimes I get written work from my students with sentences like these:
  1. I come from Gdańsk and there still live my parents.
  2. I studied in Kraków. There is one of the oldest universities in Europe.
While both sentences are perfectly understandable, a native speaker would never say or write either of them. They are not 'well-formed' and therefore are not correct.

In this lesson we look at:

  • Why these sentences aren't correct and how to fix them
  • The adverb of place there
  • The introductory construction there is, there are and why it is so useful
  • There is / are with relative clauses
  • There is / are with participle clauses
  • There is / are with nominalisation

And practise with various exercises

Click and Drop - Where you see this sign, mouse over for instructions

The word there has two different functions and two different pronunciations:

  1. An adverb of place meaning in that place, which is what the writers intended here.
    This is pronounced with a stressed long vowel /ðeə(r)/ to rhyme with their or hair
    EG: Look at those flowers over there.
  2. As an introductory subject in the construction there is / are. This is often used to say that somebody or something exists (or not) somewhere.
    This is pronounced with an unstressed short vowel (the schwa) /ðə(r)/ a bit like the
    EG: There's a cow in the garden.
This second idea is not unique to English. French has il y'a, Spanish has hay and Italian has c'è. Interestingly both the French and Italian versions also involve their words for there.

Making sure we understand which there is intended.

The problem with the student examples is mainly to do with word order.

At the beginning of a sentence or clause we expect to find a subject. So when we hear or see there at the beginning of a sentence or clause, we expect it to have the introductory subject meaning, not the adverbial meaning.
We don't usually expect to find an adverbial of place before the verb. They normally go after the verb, but before an adverbial of time. For example:
I come from Gdańsk . My parents moved there forty years ago.

There are however, some exceptions (it is English after all!)

When we want to emphasise that we've found something for example, instead of saying:
Look! The book I was looking for is there, on the sofa.
we can use a bit of fronting, stressing there:
Look! There's the book I was looking for, on the sofa.

Exercise 1 - See if you can work out which function there has in these sentences - 1. Adverb of place or 2. Introductory. Try saying the sentence and seeing which pronunciation of there works best - long or short

1. Adverb2. Intro
1.There's always someone who's not happy.
2.There's the postman. I'll see if there's anything for me.
3.There were two of them, two mean looking guys.
4.There are times when I just don't understand you.
5.There she goes, there she goes again. (The La's)
6.There appears to be a mistake in our bill.
7.There are my glasses, I've been looking everywhere for them.
8.There was once a little girl called Goldilocks.
9.There's a pair of scissors in the drawer.
10.There goes my bonus, just look at these sales figures!
11.There followed a long stony silence.
12.There's a hole in my bucket, dear Liza. (children's song)

Exercise 2 - Now put the adverb there in the right place in these sentences. Simply click on the space where you think it goes. If you change your mind, just click again.

1.The museum is closed today .  We'll go tomorrow.
2.Try again, you'll get in the end.
3.Put the chair over please.
4.Look, is the book I've been looking for.
5.I'll have to stop you ,  we've run out of time.
6.We'll never get if we don't hurry.
7.Oh. is Peter, I'll go and talk to him.
8.Well you are. I've been looking everywhere for you.

Let's look at those students' example sentences again and fix them.

  1. I come from Gdańsk and there still live my parents.
  2. I studied in Kraków. There is one of the oldest universities in Europe.
There are several possible solutions:
  • I come from Gdańsk and my parents still live there.
  • I come from Gdańsk, where my parents still live.
  • I studied in Kraków, where there is one of the oldest universities in Europe.
  • I studied in Kraków, which has one of the oldest universities in Europe.
In the first example I've moved the adverb of place to it's normal position. In the others I've used relative clauses. Note that in the third example, there has the introductory subject function, not the adverbial of place function.

More on there is, there are etc.

'Introductory' there, also known as 'Existential' there.

As we've just seen, the second use is connected to the fact that somebody or something exists (or not) somewhere.
  • There's a man on the roof.
  • There aren't any cups in the cupboard.
  • Is there any coffee?
For this reason it is often called existential there by grammarians and linguists, although EFL books tend to call it the introductory subject, because it is used to introduce somebody or something new and takes the place of the 'real' subject, which appears after the verb be.

There is, there are etc. - Notes

  1. Because of its introductory nature, we usually use there is/are with nouns that haven't been previously defined, or are not specific.
    • There is a cat stuck in the tree in the garden.
    but when a noun has been defined, or we know what noun is being talked about, we use a normal subject + verb order
    • The cat is down from the tree now.
    • Our cat is safe in the kitchen
  2. The verb be agrees with the noun that follows it (the 'real' subject)
    • There is a storm coming.
    • There are dark clouds in the sky.
  3. We can use this construction with there in all non-continuous tenses and with tag-questions
    • There was a large lorry outside our house.
    • There have been a lot of burglaries lately.
    • There will now be a short break.
    • There's no need to hurry, is there?
  4. We sometimes add modals or other verbs before be
    • There must be some mistake, surely?
    • There seems to be something happening out in the street.
  5. In literary styles this construction is sometimes used with verbs other than be
    • There remained only the contract to be signed.

Exercise 3 - Where possible, rewrite the sentence using there. Otherwise leave the box blank.

  • For this exercise, don't use contractions
  • Remember about tense
  • Remember to use final punctuation
1.A woman is waiting to see you.
2.The new computer is on the desk in the study.
3.Nobody was in the room.
4.Something strange was crawling up his leg.
5.My glasses are in the other room.
6.Nothing was in the room except for a simple bed.
7.Is any information on the sign about opening times?
8.Steve's car is in his garage.
9.A bowl of fruit is on the table.
10.Your supper is on the table.
11.Have any thunderstorms been recently?
12.A lot of people were at the bus stop.

Why it is so useful.

Great importance has always been given to the subject in English, and it is true that the subject is used to introduce the topic of the sentence, but current linguistic thinking suggests that:
  • We prefer to start a sentence with old information which is already known,.
  • We prefer to introduce new and important information nearer the end of the sentence.
  • Our intonation stress is quite low at the beginning of the sentence
By introducing the sentence with a there-structure we shift the main subject into a position:
  • where it will get more stress and so more attention
  • which is more like the place where we introduce new, important infirmation.
"What the there construction does is highlight a clause as a whole, presenting it to the listener or reader as if everything in it is a new piece of information. It gives the entire clause a fresh status."
(David Crystal, Making Sense of Grammar. Pearson Longman, 2004)
And perhaps because of this, the there construction is used for a lot more than just sentences about somebody's or something's existence somewhere.

There is / are with relative clauses

Exercise 4a - Enter the appropriate endings into the boxes on the right and check.

Exercise 4b - Then enter who or which into the middle box where necessary. (For this exercise don't use that). If the pronoun is not necessary, leave the box blank.

1. There were some people at the party
2. There was a small road
3. There are still some sceptical people
4. There aren't many things
5. There are a lot of people I know
6. There were a lot of things on the menu
7. There was a kind man at the demo
8. There have been some things
a)would jump at such a chance.
b)I really fancied.
c)connected the two villages.
d)was giving out water to people.
e)don't believe in climate change.
f)I'd never seen before.
g)I've regretted doing.
h)he can't put his hand to. (manage to do)

There is / are with that and wh- clauses

  • that clauses -
  • There's a possibility (that) I might be late.
  • Is there a chance (that) you could help me out tomorrow?
  • wh- clauses -
  • There's no telling when they will arrive.
  • Is there a reason why he isn't coming to the party?

There is / are with participle clauses

The there is / are construction is often used with a noun plus participle clause.

Exercise 5 - Complete the gaps with present or past participles made from the verbs in the box. If you click on the image a large version should appear in a new tab. Mouse over the words in blue for definitions.

Canaletto - The Grand Canal and the Church of the Salute Image from Wikipedia

If you right click on the picture and open the Wikipedia picture file in another tab, you can click again to enlarge it to see all the details.
moor   ·   take   ·   drape   ·   talk   ·   be   ·   do   ·   go   ·   park   ·   move   ·   bring   ·   wait   ·   clamber   ·   position   ·   walk   ·   point   ·  
There is a lot (1) on in this painting. There are a lot of gondoliers (2) whatever it is that gondoliers do, (3) their passengers to their destinations, and there seem to be a few people (4) in various directions.
On the left there are three barges. At the front there is a small barge (5) to a pole sticking out of the water. There is a barrel (6) at the front of this barge, and there is some material (7) like a tent in the middle of the boat. Behind it there is a larger barge, probably (8) unloaded, and behind that there is a third barge, nearer the quay, and on it there is a sailor (9) in the rigging.
In the left background there is an enormous church. There are some people (10) on the steps, while there are other people (11) up the steps, presumably on their way to the church. There are a couple of gondolas " " (12) nearby, (13) more people to the church.
In the background there are another two or three barges (14) to be unloaded. And although it is sunny at the moment, it looks as though there are darker clouds (15) in from the right.

There is / are with nominalisation

Sometimes the there-structure is used in English to express events, happenings, and states of affairs, without mentioning who is responsible. In this type of sentence we often use a noun derived from a verb. This is known as nominalisation:
There was an abrupt knock at the door.
"This has the effect of silencing the Agent of the action. We don't know who knocked at the door ... The occurrence is the only important part of the message."
(Angela Downing, English Grammar: A University Course, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2006)
This is especially common in narratives and in news reports.

Exercise 6 - match the beginnings and endings

1. There was a sudden flash
2. There was a loud
3. There were shouts from the back benches of
4. There has been an increase
5. There was a lot of shouting and
6. There are explosions
7. There is total
8. There have been some break-ins
b)of light.
c)'Here, here!' and 'Shame!'
d)in the neighbourhood.
e)knock on the door.
f)going off everywhere.
g)confusion at the moment.
h)in vandalism recently.



  • Ex 1 - 1. intro, 2. place, 3. intro, 4. intro, 5. place, 6. intro, 7. place, 8. intro, 9. intro, 10. place, 11. intro, 12. intro
    • Ex 2
    • 1. The museum is closed today . We'll go X tomorrow
    • .
    • 2. Try again, you'll get X in the end.
    • 3. Put the chair over X please.
    • 4. Look, X is the book I've been looking for.
    • 5. I'll have to stop you X, we've run out of time.
    • 6. We'll never get X if we don't hurry.
    • 7. Oh. X is Peter, I'll go and talk to him.
    • 8. Well X you are. I've been looking everywhere for you.
  • Ex 3 - 1. There's a woman waiting to see you., 2. , 3. There was nobody in the room., 4. There was something strange crawling up his leg., 5. , 6. There was nothing in the room except for a simple bed., 7. Is there any information on the sign about opening times?, 8. , 9. , 10. There's a bowl of fruit on the table., 11. Have there been any thunderstorms recently?, 12. There were a lot of people at the bus stop
  • Ex 4 - 1. I'd never seen before. 2. which connected the two villages. 3. who don't believe in climate change. 4. he can't put his hand to. 5. who would jump at such a chance. 6. I really fancied. 7. who was giving out water to people. 8. I've regretted doing.
  • Ex 5 - 1. going, 2. doing, 3. taking, 4. pointing, 5. moored, 6. positioned, 7. draped, 8. being, 9. clambering, 10. talking, 11. walking, 12. parked, 13. bringing, 14. waiting, 15. moving
  • Ex 6 - 1. of light. 2. knock on the door. 3. 'Here, here!' and 'Shame!' 4. in vandalism recently. 5. swearing. 6. going off everywhere. 7. confusion at the moment. 8. in the neighbourhood.

Printer friendly post

You can make a teacher copy with answers by clicking on 'Show All'. Make sure you 'Clear All' before printing student copies. Or you can print normally and the answers will appear on a separate page (Page 10). The lesson is on Pages 1-9. I strongly recommend doing a Print Preview first. You might want to change your margins and you certainly won't want to print every page.

No comments: