To me, man is the subject and it has two verbs — was and known —, making there a complement.

My teacher argued that the verb is "was known".

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    Related: There-Insertion verbs Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 22:35
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    The verb is not was known. There are two clauses here: a main clause (“There was a man”) and a reduced relative clause (“[who was] known as The ‘Toe Suck Fairy’”). The main clause is existential; the was in it is not just used to form a passive and could be replaced with something like lived or existed with no fundamental change in meaning. Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 23:23
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    Can we talk about the fact that this question refers to a Toe Suck Fairy, for a second?
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Sep 19, 2014 at 12:50
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    @DanBron Unfortunately I googled it...and it's probably just a fact best not talked about.
    – BrianH
    Commented Sep 19, 2014 at 14:21
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    My last comment got deleted (I don't know why). Anyway, here's basically what it said: The grammatical subject of an existential "there" construction is the dummy pronoun "there"; the head verb is the verb "was"; the subject "there" is considered to be the external complement; the word "known" is probably a verb; there is no clausal "object" in the matrix clause.
    – F.E.
    Commented Sep 19, 2014 at 15:57

5 Answers 5


Leaving out the Toe Suck Fairy, an independently serious Healthy Hyphenation™ problem,
the sentence to be accounted for is

  • There was a man known as X.

This is a very simple sentence, suitable for beginning stories, displaying two syntactic processes:

  1. There-Insertion, which
    inverts the verb and the original subject, and inserts a dummy there as the new subject.
    [A man who was known as X] was. ==> There was [a man who was known as X].
    (This is, btw, the "existential" sense of be, which mostly occurs with There-Insertion.)

  2. Whiz-Deletion, which
    deletes a subject Wh-word, and an auxiliary form of be, from a relative clause
    There was a man [who was known as X]. ==> There was a man [known as X].

The there that's inserted is not a complement, though it is the subject of was.
The derived participial phrase known as X is of course a reduced relative clause.
One could go into more detail about Passive Participles here, but let's not, OK?

  • What's the reference to a serious Healthy Hyphenation™ problem* about? Commented Sep 20, 2014 at 7:40
  • Sucking toes is not especially hygienic. And three-word phrases that involve hyphens are too distracting in this forum. And I meant independently serious, but you couldn't hear the intonation, probly. Commented Sep 20, 2014 at 15:05
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    Quite right, was listening but didn't. Thanks! Commented Sep 20, 2014 at 19:10

"There" is the subject. There was what? A man known [participle adjective, not verb] as... The only verb in this sentence is "was". Your teacher is mistaken that the verb is "was known". The "man known" is a way to use an adjective here instead of saying, "There was a man who was known..."

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    So it's not a reduced relative clause? Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 23:54
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    It is a reduced relative clause. That's what she is saying. and as @JanusBahsJacquet said in a comment. Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 0:02
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    @Cyberherbalist, deelea, If it's a reduced relative clause then arguably known is a verb - although one in a subordinate clause - which is the opposite of what deelea is saying! PS How d'you know deelea's a girl? (deelea, I'm not saying you're not a woman btw!) Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 0:34
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    @Cyberherbalist Hmm but deelea said man known [participle adjective, not verb] as... The only verb in this sentence is "was" That would seem to imply that they're saying that known is not a verb!!!! - PS I suspect you're right in your name assumptions, but I have a friend named Dee! :) Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 0:38
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    Well, it could be, or not. They're called adjective clauses not because they have an adjective in them but because they're modifying a noun (so I believe). On a separate note known could quite well be an adjective anyway, but it's not clear cut in the OP's example, imo, ... it kind of could go either way :) Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 0:51

There’s a problem.

There is a well-known man.

There is a man known as the “Toe Suck Fairy.”

These are “existential there” sentences.

“Existential there” sentences have the exceptional feature of having two subjects:

  • A positional subject: “There
  • A notional subject (or displaced subject or semantic subject or true subject): “a problem” in the first example; “a well-known man” in the second example; “a man known as the ‘Toe Suck Fairy’” in the third.

In English, the subject typically immediately precedes the finite verb in declarative clauses. In questions, order inversion occurs, and the subject immediately follows the auxiliary: “Is there a problem?” Clearly, the positional subject fits this criterion.

Semantically, the subject in a sentence in the active voice is an agent or theme performing the action expressed by the verb; or when the verb is a theme, the subject receives a property assigned to it by the predicate. The notional subject fits this criterion.

Another feature of subjects is that in a sentence, the subject generally agrees with the finite verb in person and number. Let’s make the first sentence plural:

(a) There are problems.

(b) There’s problems.

In (a), the verb agrees with the notional subject; in (b) with the positional subject.

The form (a) is correct and most commonly found; although (b) is found too (informal, maybe regional?).

Reference: I haven’t consulted the book, but the existential there section in the Wikipedia article on subject refers for a discussion of the subject status of existential there to: Douglas Biber et al., Longman grammar of spoken and written English, Essex: Pearson Education, 1999, page 944.

Note for completeness: Some grammaticians disagree with the notion that the notional subject (or displaced subject or semantic subject or true subject) is a subject too, and call it something else. Apparently, the Cambridge grammar of the English language by Rodney D. Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, 2002, has a section “Evidence that subject function is uniquely filled by dummy it and there”, on pages 241‒243. Haven’t found or read it myself.

The notional subject “a man known as the ‘Toe Suck Fairy’”:

in this noun phrase, “known as the ‘Toe Suck Fairy’” is a reduced relative clause. The phrase is a shortened form of “a man who was known as the ‘Toe Suck Fairy’”. In the relative clause, the omitted word “who” is the subject.

As Araucaria explains in another answer, there are 2 ways to analyse the relative clause. In both ways, the omitted word “who” is the subject.

  • The most natural analysis, in my opinion: The relative clause is in the passive voice, where “was known” is the predicator, which consists of the passive auxiliary “was” (which is omitted) and the past participle of the lexical verb “to know”. The preposition phrase “as the ‘Toe Suck Fairy’” is a predicative complement.
  • The alternative way: The omitted word “was”, the third person singular form in the past tense of “to be”, is the predicator-verb. The adjective phrase “known as the ‘Toe Suck Fairy’” functions as a predicative complement. It consists of the adjective “known” followed by the preposition phrase “as the ‘Toe Suck Fairy’” which functions as predicative complement (inside the larger predicative complement).

Also, should you be putting “Toe Suck Fairy” in quotations, or should you italicize them?

In this case, I would prefer putting those words in quotations. But style guides’ opinions may vary.

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    Nice post. Have you looked at the CGEL Huddleston and Pullulm 2002? Btw your observation re person and number there isn't correct: The government are... The problem with semantic subjects is subjectness seems to be syntactic. The thematic role of agent (similar to subject) though seems to be semantic. The "active" stipulation in your explanation's kind of essential. But there's still a problem here, it's argued. Subjects of active verbs like seem don't fit the bill for subjectness as described. Also there's no property assigned to God, for example in: There is a God ... Commented Sep 19, 2014 at 15:24
  • Re: there’s no property assigned to “a God”, for example in: “There is a God”. That’s true. But there is an agent performing the action expressed by the verb to be. “Who is? A God is.
    – Adhemar
    Commented Sep 19, 2014 at 15:29
  • I glanced at that wikipedia article: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subject_(grammar) -- don't try to learn grammar from it. It is a poor article on determining the grammatical subject of a clause in today's English.
    – F.E.
    Commented Sep 19, 2014 at 15:36
  • Re: the notion that there may be no agreement in number between subject and verb when the subject is a collective noun, such as in “The government are…”. That phenomenon is called “synesis”, or “constructio ad sensum”: although a collective noun is grammatically singular, it may behave as if its number is plural (which it semantically is).
    – Adhemar
    Commented Sep 19, 2014 at 15:39
  • @F.E.: I learned the same three criteria for determining a subject (irrespective of language), as listed in the Wikipedia article. Do you know of other (better) criteria? Where can I find them?
    – Adhemar
    Commented Sep 19, 2014 at 15:42

There was a man known as the Toe Suck Fairy

The structure of this sentence, where Predicator is the function carried out by the verb, is as follows:

  • Subject (There), Predicator (was), Complement (a man known as the Toe Suck Fairy)

That complement is an internal complement of the verb BE. It is sometimes referred to as 'a displaced subject', but this is just doffing ones cap at the semantics, it has nothing to do with the syntax! It's not a grammatical subject in any way!

Notice that the Noun Phrase a man known as the TSF can't be considered a Direct Object here, because a Direct Object is a very specific kind of complement of the verb. In particular, Direct Objects have the thematic role of patient in relation to the verb. This means they are the thing the action's being done to. So in Bob punched me, Bob is the agent and I am the patient (the person who received the punch). So in that particular sentence me is the direct object. In the original question, nothing is being done to the TSF, so it can't be a Direct Object.

The structure of the complement Noun Phrase is a bit ambiguous. This Noun Phrase might involve a noun modified by a relative clause which has undergone Whiz-deletion. This is when the relative pronoun and some form of the verb BE have been deleted. The full underlying Noun Phrase is:

  • a man who was known as the Toe Suck Fairy.

There are a few possible structures for the relative clause here.

  1. Subject (who) [deleted], Predicator (was) [deleted], Predicative Complement (known as the TSF).

Here known is an adjective which takes a dependent preposition as, and therefore a Preposition Phrase headed by as as its complement. In turn, the complement of the preposition as is the Noun Phrase the "TSF".

  1. Subject (who) [deleted], Predicator (was known) [was deleted], Predicative Complement (as the TSF).

Here was known is the passive construction, where was is the passive auxiliary BE, and known is the past participle of the lexical verb KNOW. Again the verb know also takes a Preposition Phrase headed by as. The complement of as is, of course, the Noun Phrase the TSF.

Alternatively the Noun Phrase might be considered as simply a noun modified by a postpositive adjective phrase. Attributive Adjective Phrases usually can't occur before the noun with complements or other dependents, and instead the adjective phrase must occur postpositively after the noun in question. In this structure the head of the phrase is the Noun man. This is modified by the Adjective Phrase known as the TSF. The head of the phrase is the adjective known, taking as its complement the Preposition Phrase *as the TSF.

As the word order for the different structures is identical, it's not possible to tell which one is being used. I would probably tend towards, number 2, but who knows!!

Hope this helps!

[Note: I've labelled as the TSF a predicative complement here. Because it's only really the TSF that describes the man and not as the TSF, some people may wish to use a different term here. Huddleston & Pullum 2002 (The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language) use the term marked predicative complement.]

  • You could also consider known a pure adjective (you can modify it like an adjective, after all), in which case known is the predicative complement (which I would call a subject complement here), and as the TSF simply an equative adverbial phrase that consists of a prepositional phrase. (I’ve also yet to see a coherent argument for why a man known as the TSF cannot be considered a grammatical subject in any way—I can think of far more reasons why it is a displaced subject than why it isn’t.) Commented Sep 19, 2014 at 12:45
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    @JanusBahsJacquet Couldn't fit in a smiley there, word limit can make one sound a bit terse. What's the arguments for an X being subject? Commented Sep 19, 2014 at 13:42
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    Hm. Good arguments for there as subject. I suppose the only ones I’ve happened to hear before are the verb agreement (which really is bizarre—where else does a verb agree with a complement instead of the subject?), the fact that you can switch there and X with no change in agreement, and (surprisingly, considering your #5) that you can’t coordinate VPs after there if there’s an intervening X. Maybe we just need a whole new category and accept that there is neither subject, nor complement, nor adverbial phrase, nor anything else we usually deal with, but something else. Commented Sep 19, 2014 at 14:04
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    I notice someone didn't like your answer! :D . . . I haven't voted yet. But be aware that I don't much like that you present as a fact that a whiz deletion MUST have occurred in your syntactic explanation for the verb rationale. Also, I'd prefer that you had provided a syntactic explanation for "object" -- so far, you've only provided a sort of a semantical one, which will probably only provide for more confusion.
    – F.E.
    Commented Sep 19, 2014 at 15:18
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    @Araucaria See? Now do you see why I've been harping on you to show and explain why "there" is the grammatical subject? Many ELU members aren't familiar with such grammatical/syntactic tests. (One of my old posts has an excerpt from 1985 Quirk et al., I'll try and find it . . .)
    – F.E.
    Commented Sep 19, 2014 at 15:25

There was once a king who had three daughters.

If some analyse "there" as subject or something like that, e.g. pseudo-subject they have a very queer conception of sentence structures. The subject is, of course, "a king". It is an inverted sentence structure and the adverb "there" only indicates that the subject is in post-position after the verb "was".

We might say in normal word order "A king was there once/A king lived once", but such a sentence is not the optimal thing. The main point of the story at the beginning is the king and by placing "the king" after the verb - a special position - a special weight is put on the word king and that is wanted.

Linguists try to explain such a special word order by using the complicated terms "thema and rhema/rema" (I'm not quite sure whether these are the proper terms in English.) I don't use these terms as they are more confusing and difficult to explain.

It is easier to say that the local adverb "there" can be used as an indicator of inverted word order in order to lay special stress and weight on the subject in post-position.

This special word order, typical for the beginning of fairy-tales, is used in the same way in French, Italian and German:

Il était une fois un roi qui ... C'era una volta un re che ... Es war einmal ein König, der ...

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    So where;s the subject in sentences like There is? :) Commented Sep 20, 2014 at 16:23
  • As I said above the subject is "king". To find the subject you ask: Who or what does/ is doing what? In sentence structures with copula-verbssuch as to be, you ask: Who or what is who/what.
    – rogermue
    Commented Sep 20, 2014 at 17:56
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    So in the sentence I'm being punched by Bob, Bob is the subject right? Commented Sep 20, 2014 at 19:00
  • No, the subject is "I". It is a passive sentence and you ask who was punched? Answer:I. By whom? By Bob. The sentence part with by in a passive sentence is called "passive agent". It indicates by whom the action is done.
    – rogermue
    Commented Sep 21, 2014 at 1:27
  • Hold on a mo, didn't you say To find the subject you ask: Who or what does/ is doing what? Are you sure you aren't confusing subject with thematic role? Commented Sep 21, 2014 at 1:28

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