Fixing Chinglish: Sentences with “There” as Subject

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Basic Principles:

  1. We start sentences with “there” as a Subject when we mean “something/ someone exists” or introduce that something/ someone for the first time in our writing.
  2. The main verb of the “there” sentence is most of the time a linking verb, that is, is, are, was, were, has/ have/ had been.
  3. The linguistic terms for this kind of sentence is an “existential” clause.

Using a Cantonese mindset to “translate” sentences started with “there” is one of the common issues students make in writing. Among the big pile of essays I marked recently, I found that quite a few students wrote “there have/has…” to refer to a similar Chinese expression “有個X”, such as 

[1] *There have a lot of advantages in Lantau Tomorrow Vision.
[2] *There has a customer paying by a credit card.

“Translating” the two sentences into Chinese we have “明日大嶼有好多好處。” “有個客用信用卡俾錢。” But that’s not the way we mean “something/ someone exists” in English. The verb “have” refers to someone or something owning an object, a quality or an attribute, but “there” cannot own anything, since it does not refer to anything or anyone. It starts a sentence just to introduce someone or something that has never appeared in the text before. For example, at the very beginning of a story:

[3] Once upon a time, there was a young boy…

This character (a young boy) has just appeared, and therefore needs a proper introduction. And because we cannot translate Chinese directly into English in this case, the verb coming right after “there” is typically a linking verb, or a verb-to-be. So the only case in which we can use “has”, “have” or “had” after “there” is using the present perfect tense. So, the incorrect examples I put forward at the beginning should be revised into:

[1’] There are a lot of advantages in Lantau Tomorrow Vision.
[2’] There is a customer paying by a credit card.

If you really want to use “to have”, you can reorder the words in some ways. Let’s take [1’] as an example. We can say:

[1’’] Lantau Tomorrow Vision has a lot of advantages.

Here we simplified the sentence by cancelling the prepositional phrase at the end of the sentence (in Lantau Tomorrow Vision), and use the noun “Lantau Tomorrow Vision” as the Subject, in order to make it the focus of the sentence. Now “Lantau Tomorrow Vision” as Hong Kong’s large-scale project has some qualities (e.g. good/bad). Of course, the decision on whether to use “there” or “Lantau Tomorrow Vision” as the Subject of the sentence depends on what comes before or after this sentence. But this involves discussions on what makes sentences “hang together” as a text, which I would elaborate in other posts.

By the way, I would like to draw your attention to two points about sentences that start with there:

  1. The “there” at the beginning of the sentence does not mean “in that place” as an adverb of location. This means, if you want to mean “a boy exists in a place away from you”, you should say “there is a boy there”, with the “there” at the end of the sentence having the function of an adverb indicating the location.
  2. The reason why the first “there” starts the sentence because a statement in English always needs a Subject. The “there” then becomes a placeholder called a “dummy Subject”, meaning that the word as a Subject does not indicate a specific person or thing, but starting the sentence just to introduce the existence of something after the linking verb. Therefore, when we say “there is a boy sitting in the sofa”, it means similarly to “a boy sits in the sofa”, but in terms of information placement they aren’t the same. I will explain the subtle difference between the two sentences elsewhere. 

Thanks for reading. See you next time!

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