• Article graphics | Credit Prezi


The word “there” commonly takes the place of a pronoun, i.e., it refer to some other element in the same sentence or in the preceding discourse.

But as we’ll see in this post, there fills a different function as well, that of a nonreferential subject.

Nonreferential “there” fills the subject position in a clauseOpens in new window. It is usually followed by a form of copular be and an NP that has been displaced from the subject position.

In example 1a) below, the word “there” refers to the word Paris in the preceding sentence and thus has the referential function of a pronoun.

There”in 1b) is also referential because it indicates a place that the speaker can point to.

    1. I was in Paris in 1926. It was there that I met Ernest Hemingway and Ford Maddox Ford.
    2. Put the boxes over there.

    The word “there” is often called nonreferential, or existential, “there”. As shown in 2), there fills the subject position and does not refer to anything previously mentioned.

  1. There is a unicorn in the garden. (= A unicorn is in the garden.)
  2. Note that there is followed by a form of the copular be and by an NP (noun phrase) that would be the subject if the sentence did not include “there”.

    Nonreferential “there” can be distinguished from referential “there” by the fact that it fills the subject position in a clause. Referential “there”, in contrast, can occur in many positions in a sentence.

    Nonreferential “there” can undergo subject-auxiliary inversion, as shown in 3a); it reappears in tags, as in 3b); and it contracts with copular be in speech and informal writing, as is the case in 3c).

    1. Are there any cookies left?
    2. There was another road, wasn’t there?
    3. There’s something we need to talk about.

    There contracts with is before a singular NP, as shown in 4a), and with are before a plural NP, as shown in 4b).

    The contracted form there’re is heard as a lengthening of the r sound. In fast speech, this may be shortened, resulting in the impression that the verb are has been omitted.

    1. There’s a hole in my tire.
    2. There’re lots of deer out in the field.

Uncontracted forms are used in positive answers to yes/no questions, as is the case in 5).

    1. Is there any milk left in the fridge? Yes, there is. (Yes, there’s.)
    2. Are there any apples left? Yes, there are. (Yes, there’re.)

However, contracted forms with be and not tend to be used in negative answers to yes/no questions.

For many native speakers, the use of the uncontracted form, as shown in 6), sounds more formal and emphatic.

    1. Kim: Are there any good beaches on this side of the island?
    2. Liam: No, there aren’t.
      No, there are not.
  1. Modal verbs Opens in new window may appear before copular be Opens in new window in sentences with nonreferential “there”, as 7) illustrates.

    1. There must be another solution to this problem.
    2. There would be at least three other people who could tell you.
    3. There might be more than one solution.
  2. Contractions occur with the modals will and would, and the different forms of the auxiliary verb have (have/has/had). These contractions are not normally written.

    1. will
      • There’ll be over 3,000 people at the concert.
    2. would
      • There’d be at least three other people who could tell you.
    3. has
      • There’s been some criticism of his book.
    4. have
      • There’ve been several objections to that plan.
    5. had
      • There’d been a lot of talk about his resignation.


In sentences with nonreferential there, the form of the verb be Opens in new window agrees in number with the following NP Opens in new window.

In 9a), the NP that follows copular be is plural (two beds), so be is in its plural form (are).

    1. There are two beds in my room.
    2. There is two beds in my room.

In some cases, however, agreement depends on how the subject NP following be is interpreted.

The speaker in 10) refers to king prawns cooked in chili, salt, and pepper as a single dish, and therefore uses a singular form of be (was).

  1. He served a number of delicious dishes. There was king prawns cooked in chili, salt, and pepper, which is a big favorite of mine.

There are also some other exceptions to the general agreement rule. For example, 11a), 11b), and 11c) show that plural units of measurement (e.g., pounds, dollars) and time (e.g., minutes, hours) may take a singular form of be.

However, with the expression a number of, as shown in 11d) and 11e), be must agree with the noun that follows (issues) rather than with a number.

    1. There was 20 pounds of cocaine hidden in the trunk of the car.
    2. There’s 30 dollars in his wallet.
    3. There’s only five minutes left.
    4. There were a number of issues that he wanted to discuss.
    5. There was a number of issues that he wanted to discuss.


Nonreferential “there” appears in a number of idiomatic expressions that have the pattern there’s + no + present participle verb form. This pattern is illustrated in 12), 13), and 14).

  1. There’s no telling what he will do.
  2. There’s no getting out of it.
  3. There’s no sidestepping the central issue of this campaign.

These expressions may be shortened versions of the expression there’s no way of + present participle verb form. They always express the idea that something is impossible.


Sentences with nonreferential “there” serve several basic functions as follows:

  1. Introducing new information

    • There’s a new sheriff in town. And he’s going to clean up all the corruption.
  2. Responding to questions about the existence of something

    • A:  Where can I get some gas?
    • B:  There’s a gas station two blocks up this street.
  3. Shifting the focus of a discourse

    • Public skepticism about the election next week is evident, and the turnout at political rallies has been low.
      There are no reliable polls to suggest how the vote may go, but few doubt that the general will prevail.
  4. Calling something to mind

    • A:  I can’t decide where to take Debbie for lunch.
    • B:  Well, there’s that Thai restaurant we ate at last month.
  • Share
  • References
    • The Teacher's Grammar of English with Answers: A Course Book and Reference Guide Nonreferential There (Pg 131-135) By Ron Cowan.

Trending Collections

Recommended Books to Flex Your Knowledge