By Akin

2011-08-05 18:49:13 8 Comments

What part of speech is there in the sentence “There is a book on the table?”

Also, while typing it out, another question pops up vis-à-vis punctuation. In my complete first sentence above, I ended it with a question mark since my main sentence is a question. The quote is not a question, but it looks like it because of the question mark. Is this the right way to punctuate?


@Jasper 2014-08-06 20:24:56

The way you punctuated your question is the way that most English teachers and grammarians prefer. As you noticed, this results in inaccurate quotations.

As a computer programmer, I find it essential to maintain the accuracy of quotations. Thus, like many other computer programmers, I studiously avoid unlabelled changes to the contents of quotations. So I would have asked your question like this:

  • What part of speech is “There” in the sentence “There is a book on the table”?


  • What part of speech is “There” in the sentence “There is a book on the table.”?

My preference would be for the first of these two options. This is because I avoid putting an extra period outside the quotation if the quotation ends with a period. For example, I might write this:

  • Akin's example was “There is a book on the table.”

I am willing to put labelled changes in a quotation. Corrections can be labelled with square brackets ([]). [Sic] marks are self-labelling. Generalized places to put substitutions can be labelled with angle brackets (<>). For example:

  • A generalized example is “There is <an object> on the table[.]”

@herisson 2019-07-26 00:56:34

As far as I know, the "non-logical" system of punctuating quotations only moves periods and commas across a right quotation mark, not exclamation points or question marks. That's what the following web page says:

@user87931 2014-08-12 01:38:22

What part of speech is there in the sentence: “There is a book on the table.”

This is a tricky question, but it's relatively simple. There in this particular sentence is acting as a demonstrative determiner pointing out the place in which something is. We use there to say in that place which is far from us, and this to indicate a place which is near to us.

Technically the part of speech is an adjective in which the substansive determiner or adjective is standing in place of an entire noun phrase. If you look at the structure of the sentence it follows the classic paradigm of an adjective phrase standing in for a noun phrase joined by a linking verb to another noun or adjective phrase followed by a prepositional compliment that tells us precisely where the book is.

Thus we get: There [ajective phrase meaning in that place]

is [verb phrase (form of the verb to be called a linking verb in traditional grammar)]

a book [noun phrase (together they function as the determiner a is the indefinite article meaning one of; book is the singular count noun)]

on the table [prepositional compliment that completes the sentence and tells us where the book is]

I wish I could diagram this for you. Someone else will have to to it, but in short there is a demonstrative adjective standing in for the noun phrase in that place.

@SrJoven 2014-08-10 22:38:47

There is an expletive.

An expletive is:

a syllable, word, or phrase inserted to fill a vacancy (as in a sentence or a metrical line) without adding to the sense.

This coincides with the use of dummy or existential, but more appropriately is simply a placeholder word that makes the sentence work.

There is a book on the table.

can be rewritten as:

A book is on the table.

The meaning doesn't change, but if the sentence began with is, immediately it is assumed to be a question. To make it not a question, There is added.

While it may be seen as an attempt to be humorous, it still makes some sense if the following is considered:

expletive deleted is a book on the table.

What you might deem to fill in might or might not fit, but here, there, and it are valid entries to the above.

Read more

In answer to "Expletive is not a part of speech!":

It is a rhetorical device that is not really a part of speech because it carries no meaning itself. The expletives there and it are used with a form of the verb be to postpone the subject until after the verb; ...

@Daniel 2014-08-12 00:01:25

Calling expletives a part of speech is a good idea, but it's not mainstream. The site you linked is proposing a maverick system. "Here, we add an extra category, the expletive." Once you're ready to "fix" the traditional POS system, you're ready to forget it and start over. I like that you bring in the applicable term expletive though - I didn't include it in my answer!

@Daniel 2014-08-12 00:10:26

In answer to your comment saying you didn't call it a part of speech, I was going to say that you linked a site that called it a part of speech. But then I saw that you are quoting the part that says it's "not really a part of speech". I understand now, but I think to avoid this very confusion, shouldn't have put it in their parts of speech list!

@SrJoven 2014-08-12 00:15:41

@Daniel I don't disagree with you in the point that the linked site includes expletive among parts of speech on that page. In fact, it was the point of me trying to search for expletive as a part of speech that led me to this site. Which, it isn't exactly (full agreement), though it might be uncomfortable to classify it elsewhere in the style of the presentation of content. (That is to say, not enough to make its own page, yet somewhat relevant for this one.)

@user85838 2014-08-10 21:50:59

It is a pronoun... Used as an expletive subject of be in its sense of “exist”, with the semantic, usually indefinite subject being postponed or (occasionally) implied.  [quotations ▼] There are two apples on the table. [=Two apples are on the table.] There is no way to do it. [=No way to do it exists.] Is there an answer? [=Does an answer exist?] No, there isn't. [=No, one doesn't exist.] Sources:

Or an adverb.. The statement "There is a book on the table"? is inverted because the subject is after the verb.

@Daniel 2011-08-05 18:55:10

It depends who you want to satisfy with your classification. If you must classify into the traditional eight parts of speech, there is considered a pronoun ( - see below), specifically a dummy subject (Wikipedia), usually termed "existential there" 1,2,3 - search term in Google Books.


7. (used to introduce a sentence or clause in which the verb comes before its subject or has no complement): There is no hope.

In the phrase "there is" there is grammatically unnecessary, but it has two uses. One, not to end an existential sentence with a being verb. For instance, see this dissertation, page 63 (though read Chapter IV, pp. 53-115 if you're really interested):

For example, King Alfred could write “swae feawa hiora waeron” (so few of them were), but to translate this into more modern English, we need to supply a subject slot filler as in “so few of them there were” or more naturally “there were so few of them.”

The other use, as in your example, is to emphasize the existence of the subject. So "A book is on the table" is perfectly fine, but the existence of the book is underlined in the sentence "There is a book on the table." (That's why "there" is termed existential - it's only used in existential clauses.)

However, classifying "there" as a pronoun is controversial since a pronoun is defined as a substitute for a noun. There is not a substitute for a more specific noun. Along these lines, in the 8-part scheme, you should logically call it a noun. I haven't found a source to back this up, though, except for the definition of a noun.

But since even a noun must refer to an entity, and there does not, existential there is not either a noun or a pronoun.

If you're still interested, you probably don't mind transcending the artificial part-of-speech system. In fact, the reason I can't find a direct refutation of there as pronoun is that every scholarly work I've come across does not refer to eight-parts-of-speech period. So, after getting rid of the clutter, there doesn't have to be classified with either nouns or pronouns. It's existential there. It's a dummy subject. But it's not a pronoun.

Because really, you can't group it with any other word and call it a homogeneous category. It even presents differences from the dummy it.

As to the punctuation problem, put the question mark outside of the quotes, and you'll be fine:

What part of speech is there in the sentence "There is a book on the table"?

@John Lawler 2014-08-08 15:31:03

It's not a pronoun. Sorry. Pronouns are referential and paradigmatic. This is non-referential (it's a dummy) and syntagmatic. If the only evidence is that it's the subject of a sentence, why not call it a noun instead of a pronoun?

@Araucaria - Not here any more. 2014-08-08 19:02:14

Dictionaries are not a good place to start when trying to investigate what part of speech an item is, especially if it's controversial. They mainly stay with what was fashionable in traditional grammars at the point at which they were last revised ... You'll never find a dictionary which gives "not known" or "controversial" as a part of speech ... Though it is interesting to note what they say :)

@Daniel 2014-08-08 22:43:29

@JohnLawler I take your point. It is a dummy, but dummies are generally called pronouns, not nouns. It would be syntactically correct to call them nouns, since as you said they're not referential. The only reason I can think of that they're called pronouns is, people thought, "there doesn't mean anything on its own, so it must be standing for something". Therefore, pronoun. This is fallacious, so I'll edit my answer to reflect the controversy.

@John Lawler 2014-08-08 23:24:06

"Dummies are generally called pronouns, not nouns"? That's bizarre. What's wrong with "dummy"? It really seems insane to continue to restrict oneself to Donatus's Octo Partes Orationis, especially when we don't know Latin. This is not even Medieval science -- it's Roman science. That's rather like talking about the positions of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water in the Periodic Table of the Elements.

@Daniel 2014-08-09 02:05:54

@JohnLawler I agree. However, I believe the OP is asking what it's generally called. To the world, like it or not, this is a pronoun.

@Daniel 2014-08-09 02:10:13

I am going to propose and substantiate that it's a dummy noun (later, since my edit draft is saved on another computer). But the answer to this question as asked still has to be "pronoun". "Dummy", while natural, isn't recognized as far as I have seen. If you have a source for plain "dummy", I am curious to see your answer.

@John Lawler 2014-08-09 02:19:09

@Daniel: No, it doesn't. "Dummy" is a term recognized by grammarians; of course, most people don't study grammar beyond 4th grade. There are dummy pronouns, but they're varieties of it. There is a different animal, and does not have the shape or the history of a pronoun; rather, it resembles the locative adverb that it originally came from. If you believe that you are in a position to determine the real meaning of a grammatical term by your expert reading of popular opinion, then you are welcome to do so.

@Daniel 2014-08-09 11:58:27

@JohnLawler Popular opinion doesn't require expert reading to be accurately stated. As long as you're sourcing Wikipedia, so can I. Check out this and this, too. Sometimes there is called a "dummy subject", sometimes "existential there". But it's either called a pronoun or no part of speech stated. No one argues that it's not a pronoun.

@Daniel 2014-08-09 11:59:10

Also, when I said "dummy" isn't recognized, I meant "dummy" by itself, as a separate part of speech. I was aware of "dummy word"/"dummy subject"/"dummy pronoun", but like I said, they're used under the pronoun umbrella.

@Daniel 2014-08-09 12:57:43

Check out my edit. It is not a pronoun. But it is if you restrict yourself to what's conventional in fourth grade.

@John Lawler 2014-08-09 13:22:23

@Daniel: +1. Nice job. Actually Existential there has no part of speech -- it's a Zero-bar in X-bar therory -- but this is certainly good enough for fourth-grade grammar. When they take the Intro Syntax sequence in college, they'll see how it works.

@tchrist 2014-08-10 23:56:18

@JohnLawler So the POS for existential there is N/A? :)

@snailcar 2014-09-14 13:32:31

Existential there is considered a pronoun in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (p.427).

@Al Maki 2019-07-25 19:25:09

Thanks for the "dummy it" reference which led me to the term "syntactic expletive" where I finally got the idea.

@Mason Barge 2014-08-06 18:06:41

And specifically, it is the indefinite personal third-person pronoun, which takes its number from the predicate (expressed or implied), or from the subject if "there" is predicate.

@Andrew Leach 2014-08-06 18:17:46

Could you enhance this answer to link it to the question? "What part of speech is there in the sentence “There is a book on the table?”" Or should this be a comment on another post?

@KeithS 2011-08-05 19:34:51

The phrase "there is" indicates the presence of the object of the sentence, without making the object the subject. The similar sentence "A book is on the table" would mean the same thing but restructures the statement to have a subject. Usually, when using the indefinite article "a", the statement will more often use "there is" to emphasize the presence of the book over the book itself.

The construct comes from the French term "il y a", literally translated as "that there has" but thought of by native French speakers as identical to "there is" (except conjugated using "avoir" instead of "etre"). As this shows, "there" basically replaces "il y" ("that there") from the French and so takes the place of the pronoun.

As for punctuation at the end of a sentence containing a quote, there are a lot of conflicting rules regarding punctuation in quotes. In American English, the rules are as follows:

  • if the quote is not a complete, structured sentence, the punctuation should always be placed outside of the quote. (The defendant said that his actions were "lawful and appropriate".)
  • if the quote and statement both end in a "forceful" punctuation (? or !), the punctuation should be placed outside the quote. (Why did the defendant say "Why are you questioning me"?) - this is the correct use of punctuation for your specific case.
  • If the quote ends in "forceful" punctuation but the statement does not, use both punctuation marks, and place them inside and outside the quotes as appropriate. (When asked about his involvement, the defendant cried "I will not be interrogated by you!".)
  • If neither the quote nor the statement are "forceful" (they'd both end in periods), and the quotation is a complete, properly structured statement, the punctuation goes inside the quotation marks in American English. In British English, traditionally the punctuation still goes outside, but American influence in English writing currently makes it about 50-50. (When asked about his actions, the defendant said, "what I did was lawful and appropriate to the situation.")

@John Lawler 2014-08-06 13:59:07

This is completely wrong. There does not "indicate the presence" of anything. There is no "object of the sentence"; it is intransitive. And it does have a subject; the subject is there. There is a syntactic rule involved, and the category of there is Dummy.

@tchrist 2014-08-06 19:15:49

@JohnLawler The worldwide market is craving Syntactic Rules for Dummies, J.M. Lawler, Wiley 2015. Imagine billions and billions served.

@user85526 2014-08-06 19:19:17

Also, it definitely doesn't come from French, and that's not what "il y a" means in French. There are such constructs in many languages.

@John Lawler 2014-08-06 19:48:29

C'mon, downvoting doesn't help anything.

@user85526 2014-08-06 19:53:50

@John It may make someone think twice before interpreting an accepted answer which is made up nonsense as truth.

@John Lawler 2014-08-06 19:55:17

No evidence for that, afaics.

@user85526 2014-08-06 19:58:42

It's my gut feeling. Besides, does not downvoting something help?

@user3898238 2014-08-07 02:05:19

"The construct comes from the French term "il y a", literally translated as "that there has." Do you have a source for this statement? Because similar expletive constructions are also found in other Western European languages like Spanish and German. Heck it's also in Yiddish. @JohnLawler I believe you mean to say that there is semantically vacuous, but it does have a syntactic category.

@John Lawler 2014-08-07 02:11:31

@user3898238: And what, pray tell, would that syntactic category be?

@user3898238 2014-08-07 02:29:36

This article summarizes expletives well, and also states that there is a pronoun on the first page. For a more in depth read, I suggest this paper which also attributes there as being a subject, and subjects are necessarily nouns. In particular see the first paragraph on pages 5, 6.

@user85526 2014-08-07 02:40:27

@user3898238 how are you gonna say in more words exactly what I said and call it your own comment? 😒

@user3898238 2014-08-07 02:45:50

@GeorgePompidou I asked for the source of the answer's claim. Your comment did not mention specifically any languages which have expletives used in a similar manner as French il y a or English there is, nor did it provide a source discrediting the answer's claim. Since this hadn't been resolved I asked for the specific source of KeithS's claim.

@Araucaria - Not here any more. 2014-08-09 14:22:32

@JohnLawler But there are dummies that are ostensibly different parts of speech, right?

@John Lawler 2014-08-09 14:45:37

@Araucaria: Sure. For instance, English is lousy with dummy prepositions, like the at of look at or the to of listen to, that pop up like moles whenever one uses some intransitive verbs with objects. They don't mean anything, they just hold a space open, like there in There's a man here to see you, or it in It's raining or I hate it when that happens. For the last time, by the way, there are far more than 8 parts of speech in English. Just like there are far more than 5 vowels. Next year, long division.

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