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Can this be considered a complete sentence?

There lived a princess named Gretchen.

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It's "grammatically" valid, but contrary to Louel's assertion, it would almost never appear in that exact form. Fairy tales often start with There once lived a princess named Gretchen (or more likely, There was once a princess named Gretchen). –  FumbleFingers Feb 2 at 21:12
    
Complete the limerick: There once lived a princess named Gretchen // Whom all of the princes thought fetchin' … You need the "once"; without it, the meter would be wrong. –  Peter Shor Feb 3 at 2:36
    
@FumbleFingers - It's not that uncommon. "there lived a" gets 3.2 million hits at Google Books, compared to 4.2 million for "there was once a" and only 146,000 for "there once lived a". –  phenry Feb 3 at 23:27
    
@phenry: If I exclude just the ones preceded by Once [upon a time] there are only 3,790 hits. That's still too many for me to eyeball, but glancing at the first couple of pages I don't see a single one that both starts a sentence with those words and appears likely to be written by a native speaker. I stand by my assertion that OP's sentence is vanishingly unlikely from a native speaker/writer. –  FumbleFingers Feb 3 at 23:52

3 Answers 3

No. It's ungrammatical.
The rule of There-Insertion requires some adverbial -- of place, time, or circumstance.

Except, let it be said, as usual, with be, which it most commonly occurs with.
There are some common constructional usages with be that don't need adverbials,
e.g:

  • Enumerating lists: There's holmium, and helium, and hafnium, and erbium.
  • Asserting existence: There is a number which is the square root of -1
    (often with stressed be).

But other There-Insertion verbs like live require an adverbial. That's the function of story-initial phrases like Long, long, ago or Once upon a time or In a castle above the city -- they establish the time, place, or circumstance of the existence.

One could of course say

  • A princess named Gretchen lived.

But that's similarly incomplete; put an adverbial in

  • A princess named Gretchen lived long, long, ago.
  • Long, long, ago, a princess named Gretchen lived .

and it's still weird, because English does not prefer indefinite subjects with existential verbs.
That's what There-Insertion is for; it inserts the dummy subject there.

  • Long, long, ago there lived a princess named Gretchen
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2  
John, that's great and convincing. What's the source for the block quote? –  jbeldock Feb 3 at 4:16
    
It's not a quote; it's a sidebox. I wrote it. –  John Lawler Feb 3 at 4:17
    
Ah, thank you. :-) –  jbeldock Feb 3 at 4:33
    
I know perfectly well that OP's "sentence" isn't idiomatic, even though superficially it seems grammatical. But it's nice to see that there's a coherent rationale to explain why it's "weird, incomplete". To the extent that anything about English is "rational", I mean. But I suppose it's basically your job to find the bits that make sense (or make sense of the bits, depending on how you look at it). –  FumbleFingers Feb 4 at 0:00
    
@FumbleFingers You got it. Patterns is what linguists are trained to find, and linguistic rules are nothing more than consistent patterns. That's all I've been talking about on ELU.se and Ling.se, really. –  John Lawler Feb 4 at 3:11

Sure. That's how fairy tales often begin.

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Structurally, sure. It's the same as saying "Princess Gretchen lived".

The {There} {was/is/exists} {something} structure is usually just a lead-in to a prepositional phrase or subordinate clause, but by definition phrases and subordinate clauses are grammatically optional.

Semantically, you're leaving a big "and then what?" at the end -- but that would normally be a stylistic choice, to draw the reader in.

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