Is ‘There is no there there’ a normal and very natural expression?

I was amused to find the phrase, ‘There is no there there’ in the article titled, ‘Wrong resume’ in today’s New York Times commenting on Mitt Romney’s proposition for amending the Constitution to require the President to have at least three years business experience before he could become president of the United States.’.

It reads:

“Romney has made business experience the main reason to elect him. Without his business past or his projections of business future, there is no there there. But history shows that time in the money trade is more often than not a prelude to a disastrous presidency. The less experience in business, the better the president.”

I interpreted ‘there is no there there’ means ‘without his business experience, there is no place of success that he enjoys today. Though spell-checker keeps demanding me to delete one of three theres there from the text I’m typing in, I don’t think there’s any grammatical problem with this line. However, it makes me hiccup for unknown reason.

Is this just a pun of words played by the writer? Is it 'cool' or a very normal and natural expression?

  • 4
    This phrase was coined by Gertrude Stein, as a Google search quickly reveals. Jun 2, 2012 at 1:28
  • Fun fact: you can't translate this sentence into Russian, because there is no "there is" there.
    – RegDwigнt
    Jul 20, 2018 at 21:49

8 Answers 8


The original is from Gertrude Stein in a quote about her birthplace, Oakland CA.

It's not natural but it works. It is not a pun or a play on words, but is just clever by using 'there' in three slightly different senses.

There is no there there

The first instance is simply the existential nonreferential 'there is'.

The second is making a noun out of 'there' by having an adjective modify it 'no there', which is a figurative use of 'there' meaning place, no sense of location.

The third is just the usual adverbial answer to 'where?', at -that- location, referring specifically to Oakland in the quote.

The meaning of the entire sentence is that she didn't find a sense of place, a center, or really anything substantial or important enough to be warranted calling the town of Oakland some place by even a name. She's just belittling her home town.

Now as to the use of the quote in the passage, it is trying to say that the person has no other qualities to recommend him without the business experience.

  • 3
    Which is completely different than the "Soothing words a nanny might say to a small child, "There There. It'll be alright."
    – Jim
    Jun 2, 2012 at 2:33
  • Right answer, thought states only the obvious. Would have been helpful if the context of the quote were included and source cited. +1 All the same.
    – Kris
    Feb 23, 2013 at 5:48

This phrase famously appeared in Gertrude Stein's book, Everybody’s Autobiography, where it specifically refers to Oakland, CA. Although I've long supposed she referred to the blandness or colorlessness of Oakland, tenderbuttons.com says it refers to the occasion when she wanted to visit her childhood home in Oakland, CA but could not find the house. (Which might amount to the same thing, many of the houses and neighborhoods looking much alike.) Anyhow, the common interpretation of this phrase, so far as I'm aware, is that it says something has no important essence.



"...Not of course the house, the house the big house and the big garden and the eucalyptus trees and the rose hedge naturally were not there any longer existing, what was the use ...

"It is a funny thing about addresses where you live. When you live there you know it so well that it is like an identity a thing that is so much a thing that it could not ever be any other thing..."


It is perfectly normal. It is also lacking in punctuation. The second there needs to be in quotes for it to make sense. To me, the quote is similar to old Will Shakespeare saying "much ado about nothing." The user is simply saying "you are making an issue out of something that is either extremely trivial or does not exist."


The sentence is nonsensical; "there" means "in that place".

So "There's no there there" means, "There's no in that place in that place" which makes no sense.

What the person should write or say is, "There's no evidence (or substance) there", for the sentence to make sense.

The word "there" is used incorrectly as a substitute for "evidence" or "substance".

It's incorrect usage because "there" has a totally different meaning than "evidence" or "substance".

  • 2
    As the other answers point out, it's a famous literary quote, which has become an idiom. Writers have artistic license to play with language, and one definition of an idiom is a phrase that has meaning that is not decipherable from the plain meaning of the words. So by either standard this expression is "sensible".
    – 1006a
    Mar 26, 2017 at 16:58

I think it does need punctuation, but, for me, the missing punctuation is a comma between the second and third theres: i.e. "There's no there, there".

If we refer back to Stein's original statement, the gist of what she's trying to say is something along the lines of, "That place (the house), in that place (Oakland) is not there".


The sentence is less controversial without the insertion of a punctuation. A comma between there and there (there, there) will not have the same effect as in 'very, very much'. A comma, in this case, will only produce linguistic confusion.


There is no connotation of Oakland being bland. It's simply that Gertrude Stein's childhood home on 10 acres had been razed to the ground. It no longer existed, replaced with smaller lots and houses.

In context the phrase is about Stein's own sense of identity bound up with a feeling of place she'd long associated with her home and garden in Oakland. From her description of seeing it all gone on a trip back years later, there's no other conclusion for the reader than a sense of loss. One might also infer emptiness, wistfulness, and elusiveness of identity as well.

Although the colloquial use of the phrase There's no there there has developed its own meaning and is an apt way to describe a person, place, or thing lacking substance, the original context is entirely different.

A side note for anyone who's never been to Oakland: An 8' high sculpture of powder-coated steel plate letters stands on the border between Berkeley and Oakland at the convergence of Adeline Street and MLK Jr Way. Traveling into Oakland from Berkeley, the letters say THERE. Approaching Berkeley, the letters on the Oakland side say HERE - as though to say, yes, there IS a there there, and it's here! It's a literary nod, a whimsical way of saying Hello and Goodbye to either or both towns. It is also visible from the BART train just before the tracks go underground. The sculpture was created in 2005.

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