Recently, a native English speaker (I'm not) suggested I'd improve a sentence of mine by removing a superfluous there:

Against the wall there was a yellow bicycle.

This made me think: is there any case where a sentence structured like <where> there was <something> requires the there to be... there? Or can it be safely omitted in any of these sentences?

Some examples:

  1. On his face there was a silly smile.
  2. On the floor there were two tiny earrings.
  3. On his back there was a disgusting mole.
  • 2
    The "there" you're asking about is not so much superfluous as optional, by which I mean the "there" can be omitted in your sentence about bicycles, and in example sentences 1, 2, and 3, if you wish; or you can include the "there" if you wish, however, for reasons of emphasis, or your personal style. You might want to make "there" the first word in each of those sentences, and place the introductory phrase ("against the wall", or "on his face/the floor/his back") at the end, but that's up to you. – tautophile Jul 29 '18 at 20:05
  • 1
    There-Insertion also works for locative verbs, and with a preposed locative phrase, is equally optional: In the sunlight (there) stood a statue of Mickey Mouse. But it's obligatory with some verbs, like seem: There seems to be a problem but not *To be a problem seems or *A problem seems to be. – John Lawler Jul 29 '18 at 20:40

It is a stylistic choice. Your friend thought it sounded, or read, better without there. Others might not agree. The word can be safely omitted in your three sentences as, presumably, it is functioning as existential there; on the other hand, there, both in the original sentence and in the other three can be locative there, which plays a different function (something like over there) and requires another stylistic choice as to whether to include it. Those in favour of including it in any instance may not agree that concision is always the best style.

For the locative use, the sentence would not (if the writer so chose) be punctuated as

1 Against the wall, there was a yellow bicycle.

but as

2 Against the wall, there, was a yellow bicycle.

Note these punctuations are not necessary punctuations in either case; they are just meant to bring out the differences in (1) existential there and (2) locative there.

  • I would have given this a +1 anyway for the examples of punctuation, but existential and (especially) locative had me smiling. – Jason Bassford Supports Monica Jul 29 '18 at 21:08

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