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Is there a name for the grammatical function of the word "there" in constructions where it is used to denote presence/existence, e.g., "There is an apple on the counter."

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  • Your example is an existential construction in which "there" is a dummy pronoun functioning as subject of the clause.
    – BillJ
    Commented May 23 at 12:38
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    @BillJ this seems more of an answer than a comment
    – Tristan
    Commented May 23 at 12:51

3 Answers 3

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In English-specific grammars you'll see the term "existential there", but more generally in linguistic theory it is referred to as an expletive or dummy subject. These terms also cover examples like "it" in "It's raining".

In syntax, the idea is that these expletives are terms which some languages have in order to fulfill the requirement for sentences to always have an overt subject.

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In English it's usually called "existential 'there'", for example in the Penn Treebank part-of-speech tagset where it is "EX".

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    More specifically, "there" is a dummy pronoun functioning as subject of the clause.
    – BillJ
    Commented May 23 at 12:41
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    @BillJ unlike the dummy it, I would not call there a pronoun; it is not used as a pronoun in any other context, so this justifies IMHO to give it as special status as "existential there". Commented May 23 at 14:45
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    @BillJ If it “there” is the subject then what is “apple” in “There is an apple on the counter.” and why does the verb agree with “apples” in “There are apples on the counter.”? Commented May 23 at 20:12
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    @AdamBittlingmayer Not sure on the second question, but on the first, "apple" is the object in that example.
    – Idran
    Commented May 23 at 20:20
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    @Idran No: in There is an apple on the counter, "apple" is not object but complement of the verb. Regarding There are apples on the counter, see my last comment to Adam.
    – BillJ
    Commented May 24 at 7:27
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There is an apple on the counter.

This is an existential clause where "there" is a dummy pronoun functioning as subject.

"There" is simply the marker of a grammatical construction, serving to fill the subject position. We know it's a pronoun because it functions only as subject or raised object, and can fill the subject position in interrogative tags: There is an an apple on the counter, isn't there?

"Apple" may be analysed as a 'displaced subject'; functionally, it is complement of "be".

Regarding agreement, "there" is an unusual kind of subject; it has no inherent number but takes on the number of the displaced subject. It's comparable to the relative pronouns "which" and "who", which take on the number of their antecedent:

There are apples on the counter.

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