LINGUIST List 11.1184

Wed May 24 2000

Sum: "There" Constructions

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. YukaMakita, There-constructions

Message 1: There-constructions

Date: Wed, 24 May 2000 01:51:05 EDT
From: YukaMakita <>
Subject: There-constructions

Dear Linguists,

Several weeks ago, I sent a query to the LINGUIST asking 
grammatical judgements on there-constructions. 
The query is repeated below.

>I'm now interested in there-constructions, especially,
>whether the existential there make NO contribution 
>in interpretation or not.
>So, could you judge the following sentences and tell
>me semantic differences if any.
>(i) There is a lamp beside the table.
>(ii) Beside the table there is a lamp.
>(iii) A lamp is beside the table.

In response 
I received about 16 replies, and greatly appreciate 
the help of the following people (in no particular order):

Suzette Haden Elgin
Petek Kurtboke
E. Curtis
Larry Trask
Maurice Williams
Geoff Nathan
Hank Mooney
Stephanie Gelderloos
Elizabeth J. Pyatt
Richard S. Kaminski
Stephanie Gelderloos
Noel Gates
Bernard Kripkee
Javier Perez-Guerra
Andrew Wilcox
name-unknown <>
name-unknown <>

- << References >>--

Perez-Guerra, Javier (1999) 
in Javier PEREZ-GUERRA (1999) _Historical English 
syntax: A statistical corpus-based study on the 
organisation of Early Modern English sentences, 
Muenchen, LINCOM. (ISBN 3 89586 651 2)

Corpus: The Bank of English, Birmingham.

Nora Tums (1998?) title unknown, Ph.D. dissertation, 
University of Washington. 

- << Comment 1 >>--
Suzette Haden Elgin wrote:

The difference between these two sentences, in 
my dialect (Ozark English, a variety of Southern Mountain 
English) is that (i) is about the lamp and (ii) is about the 
table; the difference is slight. (And I should note that
there is yet one more sentence I would have to include 
in the set: "Beside the table, there is a lamp." The sentence 
without the comma is more likely to occur in a non-narrative 
context (for example, in a list of the contents of a room); 
the sentence with the comma is more likely to occur in a
narrative (for example, in a short story).

(iii) A lamp is beside the table.

In Ozark English, this sentence is so very odd that it's 
close to being ungrammatical. It would be about the lamp, 
but because the phrase is "_a_ lamp" (instead of "_the_"), 
it's hard to imagine any context in which this could be said. 
Suppose a horse had somehow gotten into your kitchen, and I
wanted to call you up and tell you so. I could say, "There's 
a _horse_ in your kitchen!" or "I'm sorry to have to tell you 
that there's a horse in your kitchen." But there is no way 
I could say, "A horse is in your kitchen." In that context, 
the sentence with "a" is simply unacceptable.

- << Comment 2 >>--
Larry Trask wrote:

Perfectly normal and unmarked.

> (ii) Beside the table there is a lamp.

Marked. The fronted PP 'beside the table' acts as a kind of
scene-setter: the sentence is telling us what is beside the table.
You could leave out the word 'there' here:

Beside the table is a lamp.

This means about the same as (ii).

> (iii) A lamp is beside the table.

Highly marked and unusual. I can think of only one context
in which this might be acceptable: scene-setting in a printed
version of a play. The presence of the table must already
be established, of course, but then the playwright might
choose this wording to present the lamp.

In all the other contexts I can think of at the moment,
this is impossible.

- << Comment 3 >>--
Maurice Williams wrote:

I have actually been working on these constructions for awhile. 
Some people have argued that expletive there does have meaning, 
most notably Dwight Bollinger (1977). He contends that there is 
used to bring an entity into awareness. You might also want to look 
crosslinguistically at languages that use place to set up an existential.

That is, you may want to look at languages that have a locative verb
in existentials like Spanish (Haber).

Generally speaking people argue that you use there constructions:

1. There is a man in the garden.

to introduce new entities. and the there less construction is marked in 

2. A man is in the garden.

It is also argued that there is a specificity contrast between sentences 
such as (1) and (2) where whereas (1) can carry only a non-specific 
reading on the indefinite (2) carries both a specific and non-specific 

If you wish to contend that there has meaning (as I tried to do not very 
successfully) you may wish to take into account these reading differences.

In Syntactic theory, existential there is regarded as an expletive that 
has no meaning. Rather it serves to satisfy the extended projection 
principle (English sentences require a subject).

- << Comment 4 >>--
Geoff Nathan wrote:

There is an extensive literature ;-) on these constructions. 
George Lakoff has a long (almost 100 pages) chapter on them in _Women,
Fire and Dangerous Things_ (Chicago, 1987). In my dissertation 
(written hundreds of years ago) I argued that some of the syntactic 
constraints on the constructions were due to the semantics thereof. 
I can give you further references if you are interested. Some of the 
contribution to the meaning is information-structure and discourse-related. 
Thus I can't say your example iii (unless it is a stage direction).

- << Comment 5 >>--
Hank Mooney wrote:

I'm a native speaker of American English. In my dialect, choice (1) is the 
most neutral (un-marked) statement. It could start an utterance. 
For example:

There is a lamp beside the table in my living room, and when I came home 
last night the cat had knocked it over.

Choice (ii) would not work in the this instance. It would require the context 
of a previous utterance, e.g.:

My apartment has a huge table in the living room. Beside the table there is 
a lamp. When I came home last night...

Choice (iii) is the most marked. It focuses on the lamp, and has a narrative, 
almost dramatic quality to it, e.g.:

I live in an apartment with a gigantic wooden table in the living room. 
A lamp is beside the table. A fish tank is next to the lamp. When I came home 
last night, the cat had...

- << Comment 6 >>--
Stephanie Gelderloos wrote:

Sentence (ii) seems too odd to me to compare it to anything else.
Sentences (i) and (iii):

Sentence (iii) would seem to occur in a situation where someone asked 
'What is (that) beside the table?' and you would answer 'A lamp is 
beside the table'. It seems that the asking party knows that there is 
something beside the table.

Sentence (i) is more appropriate for a situation when the 'asker' or other 
person in the conversation is unaware that there is anything at all next to 
the table. Maybe they are describing how their room looks now that they 
have rearranged it.

So, (iii) tells us that a lamp is next to the table and (i) tells us that 
something 'exists' next to the table and that which 'exists' is a lamp.

- << Comment 7 >>--
Elizabeth J. Pyatt wrote:

>(i) There is a lamp beside the table.

(i) & (iii) are pretty close to me. I might say that (i) is a little more 
colloquial than (iii). (iii) might slighlt more appropriate when describing 
a completely unknown room to the listener, whereas (i) might give details
for a room that the listener knows already.

>(ii) Beside the table there is a lamp.

This could have 2 interpretations:

(iia) Beside the table, there is a lamp

To me this emphasizes the location of the lamp, but 'there' is existential

(iib) Beside the table there, is a lamp.
'There' is a locative referring to the table, not the lamp.

- << Comment 8 >>--
Richard S. Kaminski wrote:

(i) There is a lamp beside the table.
(ii) Beside the table there is a lamp.
(iii) A lamp is beside the table.

These are all roughly equivalent, sentence (i) being the most frequently 
encountered construction. Please note the following subtle distinctions, 
1) Sentence (i) is a simple, matter-of-fact statement.
2) Sentence (ii) places emphasis on what is beside the table.
3) Sentence (iii) would typically be an answer to the question, "What 
is beside the table?" Atypically, it represents a means of avoiding the 
"there" construction at issue here.
So, while all of the above sentences convey the same piece of information, 
sentence (i) comes across as the most "natural," i.e., in the absence of 
a specific context calling for a different construction, it is how a native 
speaker of English would phrase the thought without making a conscious 
effort thereat.

- << Comment 9 >>--
Noel Gates wrote:

The semantic components of the three sentences are identical. 
What distinguishes the first two sentences from the third is the possibility 
of "highlighting" one of the two objects mentioned. In these two sentences
the use of the "there is" construction emphasizes that a LAMP is beside the 
table, and not something else. When the sentences are written down the 
order of the phrases does not make any difference. However, if the second 
sentence is spoken aloud, it is possible to vary the intonation in such a way 
as to emphasize not only the LAMP, but also the fact that it is the object 
BESIDE THE TABLE. Thus, in the following exchange: QUESTION: There is an 
ELECTRIC STOVE beside the table, isn't there? ANSWER: NO, beside the TABLE 
there is a LAMP. In this example the highest pitch is on LAMP, and the 
highest on TABLE. This particular effect would be difficult to achieve with 
the order of phrases in the first sentence. The third sentence does not 
emphasize any particular aspect of the situation; it leaves the 
to find out from the context which aspect is important.

- << Comment 10 >>--
Bernard Kripkee wrote:

My intuition, in response to your question, is that there are no semantic 
differences among the three sentences you offer when they are considered in
isolation, but that there would be differences in particular pragmatic or 
discourse contexts. At the minimum, the use of a "there" construction seems 
to emphasize that the presence of a lamp beside the table is to be contrasted 
with the possible absence of lamp, which must be considered a real possibility
under the circumstances. As illustrated in the following examples, in 
the three different constructions signal differences in emphasis or in 
of previously introduced topics.



A: This hotel room doesn't even have a reading lamp.
B: There is a lamp beside the table.
B': *Beside the table there is a lamp.
 [Sounds unnatural and stilted. The emphasis is wrong in context--it 
should be
 on the presence of a lamp, not its location.]
B": (?) A lamp is beside the table.
 [This could be a natural response with an appropriate intonation contour--
 rising at the end. However, it seems less natural than B.]

Extended discourse.

C: I spend a lot of time reading in bed. I have arranged everything in my 
 to this end. There is a bookshelf in the headboard and a commodious table 
 to the bed. Beside the table there is a lamp. Underneath the table, on the 
 I have a wastebasket.
 [In this case, since the topic of the table has already been introduced, the 
 sentence opening "beside the table" acts to emphasize the continuation of 
 discourse with concerning a topic that has already been introduced. The 
 reserved for the end of the sentence, is that what is beside the table is 
a lamp.]

- << Comment 11 >>--
Andrew Wilcox wrote:

One way of looking at the question, from a Hallidayan, systemic linguistics 
of view: "there (is)" at the beginning is the thematically unmarked 
i.e., none of the other elements is marked as the theme of the clause .

Yuka Makita <>
Nagoya University
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