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If I say "there's something to eat, most analyses I have seen seem to imply that the pronoun "there" is the grammatical subject in similar existential sentences (but not all sentences with "there + be", What's the subject of "There is my biscuit!" ? And how about "There is one biscuit left"? is an interesting discussion of this). I also understand that "what"and "who"are the grammatical subject when used to begin questions and that sentences can't have two subjects (compound subjects not being the same thing).

Can someone please explain what I'm missing here?

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    What and who are not necessarily the subject when used to begin questions. In “What are you doing?”, for example, you is the subject and what is the direct object. In “Who are you?”, you is again the subject, while who is the predicative complement to the subject. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 18 '15 at 2:01
  • In today's standard English, the grammatical subjects of examples #1 and #2 are the words "there" and "Who" respectively. A technique that is often useful in determining the subject of an interrogative main clause is to look at declarative clause versions that could possibly correspond to them: "There is an apple (for us) to eat", "Tom is at the door". – F.E. Feb 18 '15 at 19:45
  • Another useful test is to put the interrogative word back into its original place, which will correspond to the location of the element in the declarative clause version that it replaced, and that will usually make it obvious what the interrogative word's syntactic function is: "There is what (for us) to eat?", "Who is at the door?" – F.E. Feb 18 '15 at 20:33
  • No, Who's on first, What's on second. youtube.com/watch?v=kTcRRaXV-fg – Hot Licks Feb 18 '15 at 22:03
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    If you can click on the "edited X mins ago" line at the bottom of your post, you'll see a history of the edits made. In my original edit, I had copied the two examples that you had in your title down into the body of your post. It seems I had misunderstood your original question, and had erroneously added a sentence that wasn't consistent to what you were asking--I have deleted that sentence. But the problem now is that I'm not sure what your question is asking. Perhaps you could edit your post to let us know, and maybe to also add your other example from your comments. – F.E. Feb 19 '15 at 10:07
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What is there to eat?

The subject is clearly what.

Fairly recently, some linguists have chosen to call there the subject in simple existential sentences, like this:

There is one person in the room.

But this causes problems, as in your example. The main reasons why they seem to want to label there the subject are that it is the first word in a simple existential sentence, and that, colloquially, singular is can be used even when there are several things in the room:

There's too many people in the room.

Another problem is that it results in a completely different analysis of two extremely similar sentences, both in construction and in meaning:

One person is in the room.

Here everyone agrees that one person is the subject.

There is one person in the room.

This is exactly the same sentence, both in meaning and in syntax, except that the adverb there was added, which comes in the first position and causes subject-verb inversion, just as in (some) other Germanic languages.

(In English, this only happens with some words, like there, but in German and Dutch it happens with any non-subject in first position: Ich bin heute in Berlin (normal order) → Heute bin ich in Berlin. (inverted because heute is in first position).)

Why should one person suddenly no longer be the subject? Why should the verb be keep its exact same meaning but suddenly acquire completely different arguments? Occams Razor says no.

In this room is one person today.

By the same logic of those linguists, the first constituent in this sentence should be the subject, just like there above; after all, it comes first, before the verb. It would be confusing to analyse this sentence differently from there is one person today, since they clearly have the same structure. But noöne would suggest this: everyone agrees that in this room is adverbial here and one person the subject.

Further, it seems strange to call a non-noun like there a subject.

Lastly, in languages where adverbs and subjects are more clearly marked as such, by affixes and endings, there is never considered the subject in similar sentences. Doing so in English would cause a rift between the analyses of the same construction in different languages. Both Occam's Razor and those who are learning linguistics would be displeased at such inefficiency. The same applies to comparing the use of the same construction in older English and modern English.

The simplest analysis is to say that there is always an adverb in existential sentences, but that in some such sentences the verb can become singular colloquially. There are many other exceptions where verbs seem to have a different number from their subjects, so this shouldn't be too shocking.

Invasion and recolonisation is not a practical approach.

The police were unable to stop them.


Who is at the door?

Who is clearly the subject here. Replace it with a personal pronoun and it is plain to see:

He is at the door.

He can only be subject (complement).

  • Re "linguists have chosen to call there the subject...": I think you may be confounding concepts. In modern theories, there isn't necessarily a single entity called a "subject". A verb can have an argument from which it draws certainly inflectional features such as singular/plural, which traditionally make that argument the "subject". And syntactically, there are structural postions that coincide with what we traditionally conceive of as the "subject". But it doesn't necessarily even make sense (or isn't terribly useful) to identify one single entity as "the subject" of a sentence/verb. – Neil Coffey Feb 18 '15 at 2:54
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    Saying that "there" is an adverb is also essentially an exercise in "wanting to identify the word as one of the traditional categories but having nowhere else to stick it". – Neil Coffey Feb 18 '15 at 2:55
  • @NeilCoffey: Ad your first comment: I agree with this nuanced view. My post did not aspire to such a level of nuance. Ad your second comment: admittedly, adverbs are somewhat of a rest category. But not being in any of the "specific" categories is itself also a property: the remaining roles and positions perhaps add up to more limited possibilities than some of the more expansive "specific" categories, even though the latter be more cohesive. At any rate, the categories are to some degree arbitrary, they are just tools to be used where they are convenient and altered or switched elsewhere. – Cerberus Feb 18 '15 at 4:45

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