From my understanding (non-native English speaker) "Is there ...?" and "Are there ...?" are generally used for Yes/No question to ask for the existence of something; for example, "Are there vegetarian options in Restaurant X?"

I'm not sure if this can always be done, but in many case I can rephrase the question like "Does Restaurant X have vegetarian options?" As far as I can tell, both formulations are not only grammatically correct but also "semantically equal".

However, consider the question "Are there many people at Restaurant X?". While one can also ask "Does Restaurant X have many people?", this doesn't sound quite right, i.e., I would argue that most people wouldn't ask like this (although it's grammatically correct).

My guts can tell me the difference between these to examples, but are there any more concrete reasons when "Is there" and "Does ... have" can be used interchangeably to ask for the existence of something?

  • Please rephrase your question in the form of a question. – James Grossmann Feb 1 '17 at 21:29

I think it's a mistake to try to understand these structures based on paraphrase relations in questions, and you'll make more headway in whatever you're ultimately after if you look at the declarative versions, and separately look at declarative ~ interrogative relations. So there is some meaning relationship between "There are vegetarian options at Restaurant X" and "Restaurant X has vegetarian options"; you can fold in sentences like "Restaurant X features vegetarian options" or "One can find vegetarian options at Restaurant X". Sentences about how crowded Restaurant X is would go along the lines of "There are a lot of people at Restaurant X", "Restaurant X usually has many customers". Existentential sentences of the form "There are X LOCATIVE Y" may paraphrase as "Y has X", for example "There is an island in the lake" = "The lake has an island", or "There is a problem with the plan" = "The plan has a problem", but that isn't a general rule. "There is a dog on the floor" isn't well paraphrased by "The floor has a dog".

Addressing your specific sentences, "?Restaurant X has many people" doesn't exactly paraphrase "There are many people at Restaurant X", although "Restaurant X has many dishes/customers" does paraphrase "There are many dishes/customers at Restaurant X". That's because restaurants don't have people. They have chairs, employees, dishes and customers. The problem is that "?Restaurant X has many people" is simply odd. I suggest that motivates a deeper look into what "have" means, which eventually would lead to a story about have and existential paraphrases.


I don't see the relevance of questions. There are declarative counterparts to all of your examples that are questions.

The oddity of your example "Does Restaurant X have many people?" is duplicated by the oddity of "Restaurant X has many people", so, again, the fact that it is a question is irrelevant. The oddity itself is due to the absence of any coreferent to "Restaurant X" in the verb phrase. Compare "Restaurant X has many people in it," which sounds better, though it's colloquial and somewhat more specific in meaning.

The requirement for a coreferent in this type of "have" sentence varies according to various factors, like whether "have" expresses inalienable possession. I gave a paper about this at CLS 4 (4th Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society) back in, uh, 1966, I think.

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