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.

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.

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).


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.

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

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.

Modal verbs Opens in new window may appear before copular be Opens in new window in sentences with nonreferential there, as 7) illustrates.

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.


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).

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).

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.


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).

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:

introducing new information
responding to questions about the existence of something
shifting the focus of a discourse
calling something to mind