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Sorry for the dumb question, but can someone please explain the subject and verb in this sentence?

"There is a house in new orleans whose veranda is lined with satin"

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  • Related question, Why is “there” a subject while “here” isn't?.
    – user140086
    Commented Feb 22, 2016 at 5:45
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    Can we take @John Lawler's statement as representing the actual situation here? 'The problem seems to be that the English concept Subject has a number of definitions and tests, and they don't always give the same result, since the Subject-Raising and Subject-Verb Agreement rules don't use the same definitions. That means you can say that the Subject is [the noun phrase] in one sense, and 'there' in another sense. This may not be what your teacher [(etc)] is looking for; but it's English.' Commented Feb 22, 2016 at 14:50
  • @EdwinAshworth You can if you accept assumed pre-transformation structures to have currency in the surface structure. However, this is a lot to ask. Commented Feb 22, 2016 at 16:12
  • @Araucaria Mignon Fogerty suggests that even using the term surface structure is begging the question: 'Sentences beginning with "there are" and "there is" are using a different kind of sentence structure [from S-V...] called an expletive construction.' And if you're not prepared to consider pre-transformation structures, you label 'he took the dog a walk' ditransitive. Commented Feb 22, 2016 at 22:28
  • @EdwinAshworth To cite Grammar Girl "Now that you know the subject is 'a couch and a coffee table' and that it's plural, it's easy to choose the right verb: 'are.' Plural subject take plural verbs: There are a couch and a coffee table in the room". That's great. Good advice to learners - who we want to fail in life. Aaaaargh: Q: "What was there in the hotel room?" A: "There were a couch and a table". Let's hope learners we like never get advice like that (didn't see anything about surface structure there though) Commented Feb 23, 2016 at 1:54

4 Answers 4

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It is not such a simple question.

"There" is the subject, and "is" is the verb.

I believe those are correct answers, but some will disagree, because there are problems. The "is" is a form of "be" that agrees with a singular subject, and to get "are" here, we'd have to change "a house" to a plural form:

There is a house in New Orleans whose veranda is lined with satin.
There are houses in New Orleans whose verandas are lined with satin.

So "is" apparently agrees in number with "a house", and since number agreement of a verb is with its subject, that argues that "a house" is its subject, rather than "there". Nonetheless, the most popular position among syntacticians is that "there" is the subject of such sentences, for two reasons: (1) subjects come at the beginning of normal declarative sentences, and that is where "there" is -- at the beginning.

And (2), if you compare

There seems to be a house there.
There seem to be houses there.

it becomes obvious that number agreement between "seems" and "house" cannot be due to "house" being the subject of "seems" (since it is not the subject of "seems" in the last examples). So apparently "there" has singular and plural forms, even though the difference is not overt (sort of like "sheep"). Thus, "seems" in your example sentence has singular "there" as subject.

A problem with calling "is" the verb is that it is actually an auxiliary, or auxiliary verb, and in some respects it does not behave like most real verbs. For instance, it is inverted with the subject to form a yes-no question,

Is there a house in New Orleans?

But in current English, this is not allowed for most verbs:

*Built they a house in New Orleans?

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    Hold it! Current English? Sorry, but even as alien as that sentence might sound at the end, it's valid, and grammatically correct. Built is a very flexible word, meaning construction of something, by something/someone, etc. Have they built -> "Old"(old-sounding), shorthand, switched up format: Built they? Of couse, probably in older English, it'd be Builded they a house in New Orleans? Anyway, digress. It fits all basic English sentence composition rules. Built can be used the same as Have. (They have a house in New Orleans, They built a house in New orleans. Then question form.)
    – Sakatox
    Commented Feb 21, 2016 at 23:28
  • @Sakatox: whether you regard "Built they a house?" as grammatical or not depends on what definition of grammatical you choose; but most grammarians do not regard it as grammatical in modern English (it was in Early Modern Englsh).
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Feb 21, 2016 at 23:36
  • Do not regard it as doesn't mean it's unacceptable or invalid. Misinformation/disinformation does more damage to the reputation of this site than the flag/modding happy comments do. One can say it's less than preferable to talk that way, but can't say it's Invalid, or not allowed. Current English is any valid English, as long as someone wills it. Languages aren't monolithic, unchanging, stable things. Care about grammarian purists, the free do naught.
    – Sakatox
    Commented Feb 21, 2016 at 23:39
  • @Sakatox, the sentence in question is not good English. That doesn't need to be "proven"; and there is no way it could be "disproven" -- it's a matter of fact. It's obviously bad. Ask anyone.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Feb 22, 2016 at 1:00
  • since it is not the subject of "seems" in the last examples: why not? I'd say it is the subject. I see no problem here. // I also think the argument about "subject comes first* is odd: there are tons of sentences in which the subject does not come first. Never have I seen such a boy. In winter we stay in the dacha. A painter he is not. From my mother arrived no presents whatsoever. These are all somewhat unusual constructions, but then so is there is/are. Agreement should lay in far more weight in our judgement of subjects. Word order is significant, but not that significant. Commented Feb 22, 2016 at 4:48
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Short answer

There is a house in New Orleans whose veranda is lined with satin.

The Subject of this sentence as a whole is the word there. The sentence includes a relative clause:

  • whose veranda is lined with satin.

The Subject of this relative clause is the noun phrase whose veranda.


Full answer

The full answer answer addresses the question of whether and why we should consider the word there the Subject in existential constructions, or if perhaps the noun phrase to the right of the verb BE is the Subject.

Determining Subjects

Now, there are a family of behaviours and attributes that Subjects have that other phrases that make up sentences do not share. We can analyse how closely a particular phrase or word matches these, how similar or dissimilar the behaviour of that phrase is.

When it comes to existential constructions, there are two main theories. By far the most common amongst linguists is that the Subject of existential constructions is the word there. The part of speech of this word is very contentious even amongst linguists, but the fact that it is the Subject of such sentences is not. The word there is unusual because it is usually taken to have no meaning at all. It functions as a dummy Subject in the sentence. It just plugs a gap in the architecture of the sentence by occupying the Subject slot.

The second theory is that the noun phrase to the right of the verb BE in such constructions is actually the Subject. This view is not popular amongst linguists.

The arguments in favour of there

Lets us kick off this investigation by looking at whether the data outside of Subject-verb agreement favours there or the right-hand-side noun phrase as Subject. We'll look at agreement later on. Let's choose two example sentences to begin our investigation:

  • There is a banana.
  • There are two bananas.

First of all, if we look in the canonical Subject position - just to the left of the verb, we can see that this position is occupied by the word there in each case. This would suggest that the word there might be the Subject.

Now, fully formed declarative sentences in English must have an overtly expressed Subject and an overtly expressed Predicate. These are the two basic building blocks of sentences. We can usually reduce the overt Predicate phrase to a single auxiliary verb. The rest of the material which was in the predicate will be ellipted but will be reconstructable by the listener given the right context:

  • My mother can play the guitar whilst spinning plates on her nose.
  • No! I don't believe you!
  • My mother can!

Here we understand this last sentence like this:

  • My mother can [ play the guitar whilst spinning plates on her nose ]!

However, in the shortened sentence in the example, all of those words in brackets are replaced by the small single word Predicate, the auxiliary verb can. This shows that all of these words were in the Predicate in the original sentence and not in the Subject. The Subject in each case is the noun phrase My mother.

Now, let's consider our banana examples:

  • There is a banana. There is!
  • There are two bananas. There are!

Both of the examples above seem to show that a banana and two bananas are in the Predicate phrases of these sentences, not the Subject phrases. They have both been ellipted in the shorter versions of the sentences. In contrast, we still see the word there in each case. Because every declarative sentence must have both a Subject and a Predicate, by a process of elimination, we can tell that the Subject of each of these sentences is the word there. This confirms the data from the position of there in each sentence.

Another test for Subjects is to see what phrase inverts with the auxiliary verb when we turn the sentence into a yes/no question. Let's see what happens in this case:

  • Is there a banana?

So in this case as well, the word there has inverted with the auxiliary is, showing that there is the Subject.

We can also do the question-tag test. The question-tag test involves appending a question tag to the end of the sentence. We can see from the features of the word used in the tag, which phrase in the main clause is the Subject:

  • Mary hit Bob, didn't she?

Here she has the gender and number properties we expect in order to reflect the Subject of the main clause Mary. Notice this excludes Bob from being the Subject. If the Subject of the main clause is a pronoun, we expect to see that pronoun in the tag:

  • She hit Bob, didn't she?

Let's see what happens if we use a tag with our banana sentences:

  • There is a banana, isn't there?
  • There are two bananas, aren't there?

Here we see the word there appearing in the tag which shows that it is the Subject in the main clause.

Now, let's look at the "case test". When Subjects have case they are nominative case, not accusative. Now the meaningless word there has no case and neither do the noun phrases a banana or two bananas. But we can use a sentence where the phrase to the right of the verb BE is a pronoun. If that pronoun is accusative, this shows that it is not a Subject. Notice that we cannot use a coordination of pronouns here, because coordinated pronouns often behave strangely in terms of inflection. Ok, let's do the test:

  • A: Who is there who can help with the wedding arrangements?
  • B: Well, there's me.

Here we see that the pronoun to the right of the verb BE is in accusative case. This seems to show that it isn't the Subject. So by a process of elimination, we are again led to surmise that the Subject is the word there.

All of this evidence shows unequivocally that there is the Subject of these sentences. However, we have not yet considered the data from Subject-verb agreement. This is often taken to support the right-hand-side account.

Subject-verb agreement

The simple data from Subject-verb agreement seems to show the verb agreeing with the right-hand-side noun phrase, which would seem superficially to argue in favour of the right-hand-side noun phrase being the Subject:

  • There is a problem.
  • There are two problems.

Here we see the verb seemingly inflecting to agree with singular a problem and plural two problems. However, there is also a lot of data which calls this assumption into question. For example, the right-hand-side argument cannot explain data like the followings:

  • There's many times I've wanted to box his ears. (plural noun phrase, singular verb)
  • There is a bed and a minibar in the room. (plural coordinated noun phrase, singular verb)
  • a: Who is there who could help him? b: Well, there is always you. (is does not agree with you)

There is no argument here from the supporters of the right-hand-side account to explain this behaviour of the verb. This kind of data would only seem to be explicable by the there account.

There accounts, such as those given by The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, argue that because there has no features in terms of being singular or plural, it can inherit number features from the right-hand side noun phrase. This is similar to how relative pronouns can, but don't always, inherit number and person features from nouns outside their clauses. In other instances, the verb just defaults to a third person singular value. This is similar to how when clauses or uncountable nouns function as the Subjects of sentences, the verb defaults to third person singular agreement. This would account for each of the three examples above.

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  • There's some ambiguities in your example sentences that make me uneasy. For instance, you seem to take "there's" as equivalent to "there is", but actually the two have different agreement properties (I could not have started the above sentence *"There is some ambiguities ..."). And secondly, in some examples, "there" varies between an expletive and a locative pro-form, which in speech sound different, but since I can't hear your intonation as you say them, I can't tell which is intended.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Feb 16, 2017 at 12:50
  • In your example "There is a bed and a minibar in the room", even if agreement is to the right, "a bed and a minibar" need not be a plural subject. The source could be "A bed is in the room, and a minibar is in the room", where expletive "there" has been attached at the beginning, and Subject-Aux inversion has extracted "is" from the conjoined sentences (following Ross's Across-The-Board condition), and finally RNR applies to "a bed in the room and a minibar in the room", leaving "a bed and a minibar in the room".
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Feb 16, 2017 at 13:08
  • @GregLee I agree it need not be, but it also can be! Commented Feb 16, 2017 at 14:36
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I agree with Rob_Ster. You can turn "house" and "there" around: A house is there whose veranda is lined with silk. The subject is house. But the discussion whether "there" is the subject or not is so old that it becomes boring.

In my view the "there" only indicates that the subject is in postposition after the verb. The beginning of a fairy tale is "There was once a king whose daughter was as beautiful as the sun". This is much better than "A king was there ... ". With postponing the subject the suspension is heightened. In version 2 the sentence sounds flat and is without stylistic effect because you blurt the subject and the topic straight out.

I don't use the vague term "expletive there". For me it is a marker for subject inversion in a special sentence type, and, of course, it is the normal adverb of place and not a pronoun.

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    The dummy pronoun "there" is obviously the subject and there are several compelling reasons for saying so: (1) it occupies the basic subject position immediately before the verb; (2) In subject-auxiliary inversion, it occurs after the auxiliary, as in Is there a house in New Orleans? and (3) it appears as subject in interrogative tags, cf. There is a house in New Orleans ..., isn't there? What more evidence do you need.
    – BillJ
    Commented Feb 22, 2016 at 9:54
  • I know the arguments. And I know that the adherents are very convinced of their view. I don't mind if you take "there" for a subject. If someone asks me who / what was there? I don't answer "a there", but "a man/ a dog".
    – rogermue
    Commented Feb 22, 2016 at 10:24
  • @rogermue Thanks for that. You might consider (in the case of the OP's example) answering that "house" is the 'theme' or 'topic' of the sentence, while "there" is the grammatical subject. Mostly, I find that learners want to know what the grammatical subject is to help them learn parsing. Btw, I've also heard existential "there" referred to as a 'placeholder'.
    – BillJ
    Commented Feb 22, 2016 at 10:31
  • @rogermue Hmmm.What's the point in your comment above? I don't quite understand. If I ask "Who did you punch?" your answer won't be "a you". This is not evidence about you not being the Subject of the sentence. It is just showing that the question is not about the Subject of the verb but it's Complement (more specifically, it's Object)! Commented Feb 22, 2016 at 10:54
  • In your example "A house is there whose veranda is lined with silk," "whose veranda is lined with silk" is an extraposed relative clause modifying "house". Note the intonation break after "there". "There" is a locative, not an expletive.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Feb 16, 2017 at 13:20
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The subject is house, and the verb is is. The dependent clause introduced by whose modifies house.

There is the confusing element. It looks like it wants to be some kind of pronoun - which it isn't - and in other circumstances it really is an adverb (The stuffed wombat is over there.)

Here, there is something else: it's an expletive. For an explanation in detail, check out the web site Grammar Revolution. Here's how they present a famous "there is..." sentence in a Reed Kellogg diagram:

enter image description here

Thanks in part to the Nixon tapes and their infamous [deletions], the term expletive enjoys an unsavory reputation. However, in. grammatical usage, it's something else entirely.

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  • Your sentence diagram is senseless. It claims the sentence can be translated as "(expletive) no place is like home." This is entirely opposite the meaning of the sentence
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Feb 22, 2016 at 3:06
  • Josh Billings (1818-85). ... “I honestly believe it is better to know nothing than to know what ain't so”
    – Rob_Ster
    Commented Feb 22, 2016 at 3:28
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    I agree with Rob_Ster. You can turn "house" and "there" around: A house is there whose veranda is lined with silk. The subject is house. But the question whether "there"is the subject or not is so old that it becomes boring.
    – rogermue
    Commented Feb 22, 2016 at 4:06
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    Agreed, @rogermue - The trouble with "there" was already old and tired 40 years ago when I started teaching this stuff.
    – Rob_Ster
    Commented Feb 22, 2016 at 4:28
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    +1 This is correct, despite current trends among certain groups of Anglo-Saxon linguists. Commented Feb 22, 2016 at 4:54

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