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How to use the existential “there”

When I read something, one of the things I notice right away is overuse of non-referential there as a means of sleepwalking from topic to topic. Also known as the existential there, this grammatical form asserts the existence (or non-existence) of something and is often used to introduce new information, to shift the topic of discussion or to call something to mind. Let’s look at some examples of existential there used well.

In Jody Rosen’s 12,000 word New York Times Magazine piece “The Day the Music Burned” (19 June 19  2019), there occurs just thirty-nine times. That’s once every three hundred words. About a third of those occurrences are referential, denoting places, such as “There, he found an inferno” or “what was stored there.”  When Rosen uses existential there, it is often to enumerate a detail or to introduce another topic:

There were at least a dozen fire engines ringing the vault, and as Aronson looked around he noticed one truck whose parking lights seemed to be melting.

There were recordings from dozens of record companies that had been absorbed by Universal over the years, including several of the most important labels of all time.

There is another defining characteristic of masters—the “Sgt. Pepper’s” tapes, the tapes stacked on the shelves of Building 6197 and countless other masters as well. They are corporate assets.

Or consider William Langewiesche’s article “‘Good Night. Malaysian Three-Seven-Zero’” in the July 2019 edition of The Atlantic. It has twenty-nine instances of there in its roughly 10,000 words, or just over one per three hundred and fifty words. About a third of those are locational rather than existential.  Langewiesche uses existential there to

enumerate:

All told, there were seven linkups: two initiated automatically by the airplane, and five others initiated automatically by the Inmarsat ground station. There were also two satellite-phone calls; they went unanswered but provided additional data.

introduce a series of details:

There was a bit of music on a stage. In the background a large poster showed the silhouette of a Boeing 777, along with the words where, who, why, when, whom, how, and also impossible, unprecedented, vanished, and clueless.

and negate or quantify:

Given that there was nothing technical that Zaharie could have learned by rehearsing the act on a gamelike Microsoft consumer product, Iannello suspects that the purpose of the simulator flight may have been to leave a bread-crumb trail to say goodbye.

There is a strong suspicion among investigators in the aviation and intelligence communities that he was clinically depressed.

Outside of these prestigious publications, other bits of writing I’ve read recently have used there  between 14 and 26 times in essays of about 1600 words.  That’s one there every 50 to 110 words. The impression is of writers stumbling through transitions, especially when there introduces vague, indefinite phrases like:

there is a growing need

there are some who are

there are countless techniques

there are several different

there are reoccurring issues

there is a multitude of different

there are studies

there is support

there are many views

In such instances, there is filler, a pause while the writer shift to a new topic. The various needs, techniques, issues, studies, views, and individuals could be better introduced by describing their significance. The more polished examples in The New York Times Magazine and The Atlantic use existential there with specifics not generalities:  a dozen fire engines, recordings from dozens of record companies, two satellite-phone calls, a strong suspicion among investigators. And they use far fewer of them.

Take an inventory of your use of existential there to make sure you are using it intentionally, sparsely, and specifically. You might be surprised.

Featured image credit: Typography by Photo by Diomari Madulara via Unsplash.

Recent Comments

  1. […] continue reading . . . […]

  2. Mark Jacobs

    I am sorry to see Mr. Battistella employ the word ‘existential’ in his depiction of the mis-use of the word ‘there’. ‘Existential’ is a nonce word, meaningless in weight of meaning, an arriveste in lexical history of the turn of the century become fashionable post the 1930s, a fudge between ‘existing’ and ‘not existing’ to convey no more than a ‘perhaps’. Its common employment is seen as ‘an existential threat’. I lean toward pointing out that a threat is either a threat or it is not a threat – there is no ‘perhaps’ about it.

  3. craig fritch

    THERE, THERE. NO BIGGIE.

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