I am working on a statistical report and came up with a question. I know that the two sentences below are grammatical but I wonder if there are any subtle differences, in the meaning or focus of a sentence for example, when “there were” is used?

  1. From 2011 to 2020, there were 856 complaints regarding noise nuisance referred by Department A.
  2. From 2011 to 2020, 856 complaints regarding noise nuisance were referred by Department A.

3 Answers 3


"There are" those who are biased against the use of this construction with the dummy there as the subject, saying that it weakens the sentence. Grammarphobia agrees to a certain degree, but kindly endeavours to also show the strong points of it, and with funny examples at that:

In some cases, the use of “it” or “there” as a dummy subject, with the real one placed after the verb, is a handy way to emphasize an element.

  • There’s a fly in my soup,

with the delayed stress on “fly,” is more effective than the deadpan

  • A fly is in my soup.

The same site quotes OED and says:

The OED also discusses “there” as a “mere anticipative element occupying the place of the subject which comes later.” Its citations from English writing date back to the 800s.

This construction can be used, Oxford says, “for the sake of emphasis or preparing the hearer.” The dictionary illustrates with these examples:

  • There comes a time when [etc.]” and “there was heard a rumbling noise.”

Therefore, your sentence 1. gives emphasis to the existence of those complaints and introduces them to the reader in a more "dramatic" way if we can say that, by slightly delaying the real subject, thus giving it some momentum. I am exaggerating the details here, we rarely think of the process when we read sentences like that.

Guinlist adds an interesting nuance:

What is not always clear is why English speakers avoid indefinite subjects of BE. A possible answer is that indefinite nouns tend to provide “new” information – the focus of the sentence – whereas the start of a sentence is more associated in English with “given” or familiar information. Putting there before the verb solves this problem by enabling the indefinite noun to go in a more natural later position.


The difference between the two is that the first is an existential sentence because of the use of the existential "there". The gist of what this term implies structurally is found in CoGEL 18.45, 1985 edition.

Correspondence with basic clause patterns

There is a regular correspondence between existential sentences with there + be and clauses of equivalent meaning as specified in terms of the basic clause patterns, provided that the clause concerned
       (i) has an indefinite subject (but cf Note [a]); and
       (ii) has a form of the verb be in its verb phrase.
Allowing for these two requirements, we may relate basic clauses to existential forms by means of a general rule:
             subject + (auxiliaries) + be + predication
                         ~ there + (auxiliaries) + be + subject +predication
The subject of the original clause may be called the 'notional' subject of the there-sentence, so as to distinguish it from there itself, which for most purposes is the 'grammatical' subject […].

As far as semantics is concerned, the basic notions as they apply to all existential sentences are concisely put in CoGEL 18.44, 1985 edition.

[…] the organization of sentences in terms of theme and focus generally presumes that a sentence begins with reference to 'given' information and proceeds to provide 'new' information. But there are many occasions when we must make statements whose content does not fall neatly into these two categories:

A |car is 'blocking my WÀY) || [1]

|Many 'students are in fi'nancial TRÒUBle|| [2]

|Quite a 'few 'species of 'animals are in 'danger of exTÌNCtionl|| [3]

Let us assume that the originator of these sentences has in each case put the focus where it was wanted. Nonetheless a certain awkwardness is sensed where the recipient is expected to interpret a theme as entirely new and unconnected with anything previously introduced. It is in these circumstances that it is convenient to have devices for providing some kind of dummy theme which will enable the originator to indicate the 'new' status of a whole clause, including its subject. Thus in place of [l], we might have:

There is a |car blocking my WÀY||                  [1a]
There is a |CˇAR|| |blocking my WÀY||        [1a]
I have a |car blocking my WÀY||                     [1a]
I have a |CˇAR|| |blocking my WÀY||            [1a]

Conventional symbols

~       systematic correspondence between structures caps     in examples capitals indicate nuclear syllables
'        stress
`       fall tone
ˇ       fall-rise tone
|       tone unit boundary
||     terminal tone unit boundary


theme THEME is the name we give to the initial part of any structure when we consider it from an informational point of view. Whcn it occurs in its expected or 'unmarked' form (but cj 18.19), its direct relation to given information can be seen informally as announcing that the starting point of the message is established and agreed. (18.9 CoGEL)
focus The term FOCUS, […][is] generally applied to the varying placement of the nucleus so as to mark which parts of an utterance are meant to represent new or contrastive information […]. (2.57 CoGEL)
[…] the new information […] is the 'focus'of the message […]. ([…] we can regard focus as most neutrally and normally placed at the end of the information unit.) (18.9 CoGEL)


My answer on the differences, while not focusing on the grammar but sense:

From 2011 to 2020, there were 856 complaints...

Implies that the next sentence will go into further detail about these complaints

E.g. From 2011 to 2020, there were 856 complaints... The most important of these to focus on are...

The second sentence:

From 2011 to 2020, 856 complaints...

Implies more that you won't be going into detail about the complaints, but rather focusing on the outcome/actions as a result of this

E.g. From 2022 to 2020, 856 complaints.... As a result, the company has decided to...

Hope this helps

  • So I guess what the others said I guess
    – Nmdy
    Jul 28, 2022 at 11:06
  • "From 2022 to 2020, 856 complaints were... The most important of these to focus on are..." feels just as natural to me as "From 2022 to 2020, there were 856 complaints... The most important of these to focus on are..."
    – Dan
    Jul 29, 2022 at 1:13

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