Existentials and extrapositioning

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Existentials and extrapositioning

In this section we examine two strategies for moving material out of the subject position in a basic clause to a position after the verb. The first of these is the use of existential clauses with the dummy pronoun there in subject position. The second is the use of extrapositioning, where the dummy pronoun it is left at the start of the clause in place of a subordinate clause in the role of subject.


1. Basic versus existential clauses

2. Bare existentials

3. Other information in existentials

4. Extrapositioning

Related pages

Information structure

Basic versus existential clauses

Existential clauses are used to provide information about the location or existence of particular referents (for example, There are elephants in the zoo). Existential clauses always have the dummy pronoun there in subject position.

When the subject of a basic clause is going to refer to new information, we often use an existential clause to delay mentioning that referent to the end of the clause. For example, instead of saying Some spots of grime were on the window (basic clause), we could say There were some spots of grime on the window (existential clause).

The use of the dummy pronoun there in subject position allows the referent to appear towards the end of the clause where it is pragmatically most appropriate.

Basic clause

Existential clause

The wheelbarrow was on the lawn.

There was a wheelbarrow on the lawn.

Flowers were everywhere.

There were flowers everywhere.

The use of existential clauses is also a strategy for shifting heavy elements to the end of a clause. For example, instead of writing Some doubts about the veracity of his claims are niggling us, it is generally better to write There are some doubts about the veracity of his claims niggling us.

Bare existentials

In some cases the existential does not have a corresponding basic counterpart. Try and create basic clauses from the following:

There is still hope.

There are fifty-two flavours of ice-cream.

There has been no indication of trouble.

Other information in existentials

Existentials commonly contain locative prepositional phrases (for example, in the zoo, or on the window). Other kinds of modifications that are available for existential clauses include:

There were no phone calls all morning. [temporal noun phrase]

There are still some assignments overdue. [predicative adjective]

There is nothing to worry about. [hollow infinitival]


When a subordinate clause occurs as the subject or internal complement of a clause it can be moved out of the clause and the pronoun it is left to stand in its place. Here are some examples of subject extraposition:

Complex clause


That Sarah likes lollies is a minor issue.

It is a minor issue that Sarah likes lollies.

How Doug gets up at five is a mystery to me.

It is a mystery to me how Doug gets up at five.

To have a holiday would be a luxury.

It would be a luxury to have a holiday.

Subject extraposition is more common than internal complement extraposition. Internal complement extraposition is most commonly found with complex transitive clauses where the direct object is a subordinate clause. (The asterisk in the following example indicates that the sentence is not acceptable to all speakers.)

Complex clause


*Sarah finds how Jude snores amusing.

Sarah finds it amusing how Jude snores.

The extraposition helps avoid having a subordinate clause between the verb and one of its complements. This problem doesn't tend to come up with other clause types.

In either case, the useful thing about extraposition is that it allows the information in the subordinate clause to be presented as new information (which it often is). It also allows for 'heavier' more complex information to come later in the clause, making it easier to process.

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Existentials and extrapositioning

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