For example:

There is a man. There are men.

How do we explain that agreement of the verb comes from the object in this case alone? What movement happens in the verb complex of the xbar tree of the above sentences?

3 Answers 3


I assume you are interested only in 'existential' (unstressed) uses of there. If so, here is my answer to your question (which, by the way, starts from a wrong presupposition):

Contrary to 'dummy it', which is inherently singular (and categorially a CP!), 'dummy there' (categorially a DP) has no inherent number attribute value. Of course, it is a 'nominal' and must have a number attribute, but it is an unvalued one until there is 'associated' with some other nominal in the same derivation that does have a properly valued number attribute. 'Association', by the way, is just chain-formation in this context, and, of course, members of chains must agree in number and other grammatical features (e.g., they must share just one theta role, just one case, a single referent, etc., etc.). Just this fact largely yields the explanation you are looking for.

Hence, since, surprisingly, none of my - very competent! - predecessors has referred yet to a special type of cases that are crucial to your question, let me do so myself: in There is/are a student/several students waiting for you in your office, the 'chain' is formed by there and the DP a student/several students (subjects in Spec VP!), where there supplies the chain with [Case: nominative], whereas a student/several students, which have no valued Case feature in Spec VP position (= VP-Internal subject! position), supply it with [Number: singular/plural],[Theta-Role: Agent], etc.

It follows that 'dummy there' cannot form a chain with any other DP in that sentence (i.e., you or your office), because, if it did, a Case conflict (not a number conflict!) would immediately arise: the hypothetical chains {There-you} or {There-your office} would be illegitimate because both would have two valued Case attributes (i.e., nominative from there, and objective/oblique from the prepositions for/in, respectively). Also,'dummy' there can never be associated with an object either (contrary to what you claim in your question!), because, if it were, the resulting chain would also immediately contain two incompatible valued Case attributes (i.e., nominative from there itself and accusative, dative or oblique from the DP functioning as direct, indirect, or prepositional object, as the case might be).

In sum, 'dummy there' can only be 'associated' with a theta-marked DP containing no valued Case attribute. That includes subjects in Spec VP, as in my examples above, and complements of non-case-assigning verbs like 'existential' be, eventive arise, etc., but never objects of transitive, ditransitive, or prepositional verbs.

As you can see, it is simply not true that with dummy there agreement 'comes from the object', as you assumed, and, so, properly, there is no fact to be explained, :-)!

  • 1
    Awesome answer! Take 'There is a man', is this correct: 'a man' is in VP comp and gets Agent theta role, Additionally, does 'there' have to be associated with a DP? 'There are men, women, and children on the boat' doesn't seem to have a DP.
    – PolkaDot
    Jul 5, 2017 at 7:19
  • 1
    'A man' does, indeed, sit in Comp V, but, as I said above, the role of Agent is never assigned to a complement (and , anyway, is not a role existential 'be' can assign). As to 'there', it must be associated to a DP (or NP, if you do not accept Abney's hypothesis), and, in your example, it is: 'men, women and children' is a coordinate DP and the specifier of the PP [men, women and children [on [the boat]] with the role of Theme, assigned by the preposition 'on', but, crucially, it has no valued Case feature in Spec P. Hence, either it raises to subject of 'are' or forms a chain with 'there'.
    – user6814
    Jul 5, 2017 at 14:27
  • In your answer, you said that the subject is in Spec-VP , but in your comment above, you said that it's in Comp-VP. Jul 6, 2017 at 4:19
  • @Morphosyntax What I said (para. 5, and comment above) is' In sum, 'dummy there' can only be 'associated' with a theta-marked DP containing NO valued Case attribute. That INCLUDES subjects in Spec VP (and Spec PP!), as in my examples above, and COMPLEMENTS of NON-CASE-ASSIGNING VERBS like 'existential' 'be', eventive 'arise', etc., but NEVER OBJECTS of transitive, ditransitive, or prepositional verbs.' There is no contradiction, therefore. What mattered is that it is NOT true that the number features of 'there' (and the agreeing verb) ALWAYS come from the 'object' of V, as the OP assumed.
    – user6814
    Jul 6, 2017 at 11:25

The comments reflect the complexity of "there" subjects, and I'm fairly certain that jlawler can fill us in on previous work on the topic. I will just long-comment on data problems. First, 'there' can be a deictic or a dummy (the former exemplified by "There is the remote, here is the TV", meaning "over yonder"; the latter by "There's a monkey in the garden"). Within the dummy uses, there + copula can be further divided into existential and what one call "considerative" versions: "there are fleas on the cat" meaning that fleas exist or are present on the cat, versus "well, one possibility is...". In response to a question like "Where shall we go" or "What do you want for dinner", you can say "One possibility is NP", or "There's NP".

A caveat is required about judgments: when I say "X is ungrammatical", I mean it's unacceptable in the dialect that I speak, so it's not a claim about rural Floridian or Tasmanian English. With the deictic use, agreement with post-copular NP is mandatory: "There are (*is) the keys I've been looking for" – "there" can be stressed, and you can substitute various other deictics like "here, yonder".

Existential "there", which is unstressed, generally requires a following locative (which could be a deictic like "there", "here", "yonder"), so "There are children in that school", "There is a child in that school" (paraphrasing "A child is in that school"), but *"There is a child a thief" (from "The child is a thief"). The subject is indefinite ("There is a (*the) cow in the well"). Agreement is required (*"There is cows in the hills") though this may be possible in some dialects), and contraction of the copula is optional. This use is perfectly normal as an out-of-the-blue utterance, and you could felicitously enter a room and say "Holy cow, there's a pig in the bed".

A closely related construction is the "There copula NP RElClaus" construction, exemplified by "There are people who speak French", "There is a child who sings opera". The previous existential construction could be derived from "NP is LOC" by inversion, but this is not plausible here (*"People are who speak French", though ok "People exist who speak French"). I can't at this point muster an opinion as to whether "?There exists a cow in the well" is ungrammatical versus just stupid-sounding. The agreement patterns are the same for these constructions, whether or not you use the copula or "exist".

The construction "There copula NP" doesn't take a post-verbal locative (or anything), and is used to offer an NP choice: this requires a context that calls for a choice. In response to "How do I remove this tree?", the answer can be "There's dynamite, there's a chainsaw, there's the bucksaw, or there's an ax". A singular copula is AFAICT always possible and maybe required ("How do we fasten this board to the house?" "There's nails" *"There are nails", though this might be possible for some speakers of my dialect). Contraction is probably required: "There's (*There is) chicken".

In other words, you have to pin down the specific construction of the form "There copula NP" that you're looking at.

  • 2
    There-Insertion is the usual name of the syntactic rule; the key term is dummy subject. Some discussion here and here.
    – jlawler
    Jul 3, 2017 at 21:24
  • Existential-there should be compared with extraposed-it -- they share some features.
    – amI
    Jun 20, 2018 at 23:47

'The man' in your sentence is not an object, since 'to be' cannot have objects at all, neither direct objects, nor indirect ones. In your sentence 'the man' is the subject of the sentence, and, naturally, the verb agrees with it.

That kind of a sentence, with 'there is / there are' construction has a reverse word order, 'there' being the marker of the reversal.

Generally speaking, a typical sentence usually begins with the theme (old, already known information, if it's an NP, then it's marked with 'the') followed by the rheme (new information, NPs are indefinite in this position, marked with 'a/an'):

The/that man is ...

As you can see, this sentence looks unfinished, the new information, the rheme, should follow, but it's absent. Now, let's complete it:

The/that man is an artist.

In English the new information, the rheme, is usually at the end of the sentence, since we begin with something known and then tell something new about it. But sometimes it is the subject which is the new information. Since English has a fixed word order in the sentence, we face a dilemma: the new information must be at the end of the sentence, but since the new information is the subject, it must be at the beginning of the sentence. English has a way out of this situation: reversed word order when you put the subject after the predicate verb and mark that change by putting 'there' before the verb to fill the slot where the subject should have been. This 'there' is a purely formal filler, it doesn't indicate a place, it isn't translated into other languages when a sentence with 'there is / there are' is translated.

For example, if I ask you to describe your room, you'd probably like to tell about the furniture in your room. "[In] my room" is the theme, the information I already know, and you'd start with it and then name the furniture items which will be the information new to me, the rheme, that's why the nouns you'll use will be indefinite, but still they will be subjects. This is exactly the situation when you need the 'there is / there are' construction. You'll probably say something like this:

In my room there is a table, a chair, a sofa, and a book-shelf.

Also note, since 'there' in 'there is / there are' has no lexical meaning of is own, if you do want to use the real adverb 'there' as an adverbial modifier of place, you'll have to use it for the second time in the sentence:

There is a table there.

It's only the second 'there' that names a place and it's only that second 'there' that will be translated into another language.

  • What is the explanation then of sentences like "There's men"? Jul 3, 2017 at 15:02
  • @sumelic - It's colloquial, and formally it's ungrammatical, like 'I knows' which is also used despite its obvious ungrammaticality.
    – Yellow Sky
    Jul 3, 2017 at 15:10
  • 1
    With tags like "chomsky" and "x-bar theory", this question seems to be about scientific linguistics, not prescriptive linguistics. The fact that a particular wording is colloquial doesn't imply that it is "ungrammatical" Jul 3, 2017 at 15:12
  • 1
    @YellowSky, I totally disagree: "There's men", "There's cows" is formally perfectly grammatical.
    – user6726
    Jul 3, 2017 at 15:13
  • 1
    @user6726 - Yeah, "There's cows in them there hills" is also formally perfectly grammatical, isn't it?
    – Yellow Sky
    Jul 3, 2017 at 15:18

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.