Existential clause

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An existential clause is a clause that refers to the existence or presence of something. Examples in English include the sentences "There is a God" and "There are boys in the yard". The use of such clauses can be considered analogous to existential quantification in predicate logic (often expressed with the phrase "There exist(s)...").

Different languages have different ways of forming and using existential clauses. For details about English, see English grammar: There as pronoun.

Formation of existential clauses

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Many languages form existential clauses without any particular marker, simply using forms of the normal copula verb (the equivalent of English be), the subject being the noun (phrase) referring to the thing whose existence is asserted. For example, in Finnish, the sentence Pihalla on poikia, meaning "There are boys in the yard", is literally "On the yard is boys". Some languages have a different verb for this purpose, e.g. Swedish finnas, as in Det finns pojkar på gården, which is literally "It is found boys on the yard". On the other hand, some languages do not require a copula at all, and sentences analogous to "In the yard boys" are used. Some languages use the verb have, e.g. Serbo-Croatian, as in U dvorištu ima dječaka, which is literally "In the yard has boys".[1]

Some languages form the negative of existential clauses in an irregular way; for example, in Russian, есть yest ("there is/are") is used in affirmative existential clauses (in the present tense), whereas the negative equivalent is нет nyet ("there is/are not"), used with the logical subject in the genitive case.

In English, existential clauses usually use the dummy subject construction (also known as expletive) with there, as in "There are boys in the yard", although there is sometimes omitted when the sentence begins with another adverbial (usually designating a place), as in "In my room (there) is a large box." Other languages with constructions similar to the English dummy subject include French (see il y a) and German (which uses es ist, es sind or es gibt, literally "it is", "it are", "it gives").

Uses of existential clauses

Indicating existence or presence

The principal meaning of existential clauses is to refer to the existence of something, or the presence of something in a particular place or time. For example, "There is a God" asserts the existence of a God, while "There is a pen on the desk" asserts the presence or existence of a pen in a particular place.

Existential clauses can be modified like other clauses in terms of tense, negation, question formation, modality (grammar), finiteness, etc. For example, one can say "There was a God", "There is not a God" ("There is no God"), "Is there a God?", "There might be a God", "He was anxious for there to be a God", etc.

Indicating possession

In some languages, linguistic possession (in a broad sense) is indicated by existential clauses, rather than by a verb such as have. For example, in Russian, "I have a friend" can be expressed by the sentence у меня есть друг u menya yest drug, literally "to me there is a friend". Russian has a verb иметь imet meaning "have", but it is less commonly used than the preceding method for expressing possession.

Other examples include Irish Tá ocras orm "There is hunger on me" (for "I have hunger", i.e. "I am hungry"), Hungarian Van egy halam "(There) is a my-fish" (for "I have a fish") and Turkish İki defterim var "two notebook-my (there) is" (for "I have two notebooks").

As an example, consider the following sentence in Hebrew:

  • yésh l-i ha-séfer ha-zè
  • (EXISTENTIAL.COPULA) (DATIVE-1st.person.singular) (DEFINITE-book) (DEFINITE-masculine.singular.PROXIMAL.DEMONSTRATIVE)
  • There is for me the book the this
  • "I have this book"

According to linguist Ghil'ad Zuckermann, the Hebrew existential construction employed to mark possession was reinterpreted in "Israeli" (his term for "Modern Hebrew") to fit in with the "habere" (to have) construction, requiring the direct object, which is predominant in Yiddish and other European languages such as English (in "I have this book", "this book" is the direct object of "have"). Consider the following Israeli sentence:

  • yésh l-i et ha-séfer ha-zè
  • There is for me ACCUSATIVE the book the this
  • "I have this book"

Zuckermann argues that Israeli is a "habere language" (cf. Latin habere "to have", taking the direct object), in stark contrast to Hebrew. As demonstrated by the accusative marker et, the noun phrase ha-séfer ha-zè is the direct object in this sentence.

Yiddish has two options to indicate possession. The most common form is ikh hob, literally "I have", which requires a direct object (accusative). However, there is also a form which is more similar to old Hebrew: bay mir iz do, literally "By me is there", followed by the subject (nominative). According to Zuckermann, the latter form, available in the feature pool together with the erstwhile non-habere Hebrew structure yésh l-i + Subject (there is for me, followed by the nominative), did not prevail because ikh hob is more productive in Yiddish and other European habere languages that contributed to the emergence of "Israeli".[2]

A similar process occurred in Maltese: "in the possessive construction, subject properties have been transferred diachronically from the possessed noun phrase to the possessor, while the possessor has all the subject properties except the form of the verb agreement that it triggers."[3]


  1. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. Summary. [see Chapter 7: "Die Verben imati 'haben' und biti 'sein' in Lokal-Existentialsätzen", pp. 187–229]
  2. See pp. 51–52 in Zuckermann, Ghil'ad, Hybridity versus Revivability: Multiple Causation, Forms and Patterns. In Journal of Language Contact, Varia 2 (2009), pp. 40–67.
  3. See pp. 212–218 in Bernard, Comrie, Language Universals and Linguistic Typology. Syntax and Morphology. Oxford: Basil Blackwell (1981).

Further reading

  • Everaert, M., H. van Riemsdijk and R. Goedemans (eds.) 2006. The Blackwell Companion to Syntax. London: Blackwell, London. [see "Existential sentences and expletive there" in Volume II]
  • Graffi, G. 2001. 200 Years of Syntax: A critical survey. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • Milsark, G. L. 1979. Existential Sentences in English. New York & London: Garland. [Published version of 1974 MIT Ph. D. dissertation]
  • Moro, A. 1997. The Raising of Predicates: Predicative noun phrases and the theory of clause structure. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.