I'm an English teacher in Belgium and would like to know the following... I gave my students the sentence 'There were a lot of people in the shop.' I asked my students to make a good question to get in the shop as the answer. -> 'Where were there a lot of people?' A lot of my students wrote -> 'Where were a lot of people?' Is that also correct? Thanks in advance!

  • It's as grammatical, and makes as much sense as, the sentence you expected. But that's a very odd thing to ask a sentence about, and since (b) the point of There-Insertion is to fill the initial subject position with a dummy subject, while moving the real intransitive subject to the end, and (b) Wh-Question Formation already fills the initial position, they probly figured there was no reason for an initial there and unwound the transformation. Commented Apr 4, 2015 at 16:04
  • @JohnLawler Or, if my epxerience of learners who've been taught the existential construction is anything to go by, they haven't fully got that there has no meaning and is not locative in any way. Most students don't get this, even if it's pointed out to them. I deeply suspect, that taking there to be a locative word, they replaced it with a locative question word, where to form their question. Commented Apr 4, 2015 at 16:08
  • It still has a pretty common locative sense, judging by the verbs it occurs with, but certainly the pure existential idiom requires no location beyond a set to belong to. Commented Apr 4, 2015 at 16:39
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    @Marius Hanku: your example "There in the shop were lots of people.", though grammatcally correct, would be more understandable with commas: "There, in the shop, were lots of people." That makes is clear that "there" is locative (if you meant it as a dummy "there", best to leave it out; the sentence stands without it: "In the shop were a lot of people." Commented Apr 4, 2015 at 20:39
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1 Answer 1


Perhaps it would help to point out to them that in French, the expression "il y a" has nothing to do with anyone who /has/ anything. In the same way, in English, /there is/ has nothing to do with where anyone is. It's an idiom, and that's that! The question is: "Are there a lot of people in the shop." The question is formed exactly as any other question in the verb /to be/ in English. "John and Mary are at home." "Are John and Mary at home?" "There are a lot people in the shop." "Are there . . . "

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