John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Monday, June 15, 2009

There, there

When editors and writers and teachers who don’t know what they are talking about inveigh against “passive voice,” one of the things they commonly misidentify as passive is the there is/there are construction.

There in this context is what Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage calls a “dummy subject.” The actual subject of the verb is found in the noun or nouns following the verb. Some writers use are to make the verb agree with a compound subject, and some don’t, and that’s just the way it is. (It is also a dummy subject in such constructions as It’s raining.)

Though there is/there are is not technically a passive construction, it is frequently identified by teachers of composition as a weak construction to be shunned. Merriam-Webster’s is instructive on this point:

In an article appearing in Written Communication for July 1988, Thomas N. Huckin and Linda Hutz Pesante investigate the use of there as dummy subject, calling it “existential there.” They decided to test the common handbook warning not to begin sentences with there against a 100,000-word sample of good writing by what they call “expert” writers. Their survey found the construction very common; the expert writers obviously paid no attention to the handbook prohibition. They found there sentences used for four chief purposes: to assert existence, to present new information, to introduce topics, and to summarize. Clearly, then, there sentences are often highly useful, and they seem to occur with the same frequency at all levels of discourse.

To give an example of the utility of the there is construction in a statement of assertion, what sane writer would want to change There is a balm in Gilead to A balm exists in Gilead?

The only sensible advice about there is/there are constructions is not to rely on them too heavily and risk monotony in the prose.