LINGUIST List 11.1195

Thu May 25 2000

Sum: "There" Constructions/Addendum

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. YukaMakita, There-constructions

Message 1: There-constructions

Date: Thu, 25 May 2000 21:36:21 EDT
From: YukaMakita <>
Subject: There-constructions

For Query: Linguist 11.883

Dear Linguists,

I posted a summary for there-constructions on May 25.
And, I received four more answers and useful comments.
I wish to express my appreciation to the following members

Joost Kremers, Jeff Leer, Asya Pereltsvaig, Tom Carey

The original question and their answers are the followings.

- -<< Question >>---
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.

- -<< Answer 1 >>---
Jeff Leer wrote:

(i) There is a lamp beside the table.

 focus on "a lamp"

(ii) Beside the table there is a lamp.

 focus on "beside the table"

(iii) A lamp is beside the table.

 no focus, just background information.

 This is the hardest to judge. As some of the others have 
 noted, it describes a scene that the observer has never 
 encountered, or perhaps finds surprising. It's interesting 
 that the woman from the Ozarks rejected it, perhaps because 
 it is foreign to native English (Could it be borrowed?). 
 To me it has an artistic flair, as the man noted who said it 
 would be found in stage directions. But I can envision it used 
 in speech, as a kind of metastatement or perhaps more precisely 
 a self-conscious attention-getting device.

- -<< Answer 2 >>---
name-unknown <> wrote:

In terms of truth-functional semantics, these sentences are absolutely
identical, I think, but there are of course thematic differences, so they
wouldn't mean exactly the same thing when spoken in context. I think the
first sentence concentrates your attention on the lamp; the second on the
table; and the third is similar to the first, but with less attention
being drawn to the lamp.

- -<< Answer 3 >>---
Joost Kremers wrote:

I am reminded of Noam Chomsky's most recent paper, 
'Derivation by Phase'. (BTW, if you know little or nothing 
about generative grammar, don't bother reading this paper. 
It requires quite of lot of background information...) 
On pages 20-1, he discusses the difference between 
(among others) the following sentences:

i there are many fish expected to be caught
ii many fish are expected to be caught

He claims that (i) has, as he calls it, ``existential import'', 
whereas (ii) does not. It means that when you utter (i), you 
presuppose the existence of a large quantity of fish, of which 
it is expected that they will be caught. In (ii), however, the 
existence of the fish is not presupposed. That means that 
(i) can turn out to be false because the fish that were there 
were not caught, whereas (ii) can turn out to be false
because the fish simply weren't there.

Another pair of sentences illustrate the point even better, perhaps:

iii there is a building likely to be demolished
iv a building is likely to be demolished eventually

In (iii), the existence of the building is presupposed, that is, 
there is indeed a building, and it is likely that it will be 
demolished. (iv), however, has a very different meaning. It is a 
generic statement about buildings: it roughly means the same as 
``all buildings will probably be demolished eventually''. That is, 
(iv) is a general truth, that still holds, even when there are no 
buildings at all. (iii) however, can only be true if there is indeed a 
building and if that building is indeed likely to be demolished.

Looking at your sentences (i) and (iii):

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

Extending the analysis, one can say that (i) is the expected 
structure, since it implies the existence of a lamp, which is 
exactly what one is trying to say. (iii), however, does not 
presuppose the existence of any lamp, which is probably why it 
was considered so odd by most native speakers that responded. 
(iii) might be correct if one wishes to express that it is a 
property of lamps that they are beside the table, but that 
would be an odd statement to make.

- -<< Answer 4 >>---
Asya Pereltsvaig wrote:

You might want to check the following book:
Birner, Betty J. (1996) The Discourse Function of Inversion 
in English, New York: Garland Publishing.

It discusses these sort of sentences very extensively. 

- -<< Answer 5 >>---
Tom Carey wrote:

In conversation, I sense it as somehow discourteous to omit 
the opening "There is..." when making a declarative statement.

1) Quantum physics tells us that an elementary particle is 
not an object, but a wave function. 
[Appropriate in a classroom lecture.]

2) There is a view in modern physics which maintains that.... etc. 
[Appropriate in conversation; it covertly suggests that the speaker 
is not asserting superiority or dominance in the exchange.

Yuka Makita <>
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