When you listen to music or read books in English, you will often hear and see how English speakers use different grammatical structures to change the sound of a sentence.
The speakers will use these different structures, or devices, to direct your attention to one or more words. They can also use changes in wording to create a variety, or mix, in the kinds of sentences they use.
Today, we consider a simple word: "there". We will learn how to use the word "there" to change the sound of a sentence. We also will learn how grammar controls when the speaker emphasizes the word "there".
The word "there" in popular music
Have you found that English speakers often say the word "there" in different ways?
In an earlier Everyday Grammar program, we examined how grammar can influence the sound of a sentence.
We played David Bowie’s song "Starman." It starts like this:
"There's a starman waiting in the sky
He'd like to come and meet us…"
So, why did Bowie sing "there's a starman waiting in the sky…"? Why not choose wording like "A starman is waiting in the sky" or "In the sky, a starman is waiting"?
All of these sentences have the same meaning.
While we may never know the exact reason Bowie chose these words, we can be fairly sure that this sentence sounded the best to his musical ear.
The question becomes this: why did it sound best to his ear?
One reason could be that the sentence uses what grammar expert Martha Kolln calls the “there transformation.”
The there transformation
The there transformation means changing the order of words in a sentence by adding the word "there."
When this happens, the word there acts as an expletive – a word that does not actually have meaning.
The two sentences "A starman is waiting in the sky" and "there's a starman waiting in the sky" have the same meaning.
However, in the second sentence, there is acting as a placeholder. It is pushing the subject of the sentence, a starman, to a different position.*
When you hear or see the sentence "A starman is waiting in the sky," it is clear that the noun "a starman" is the subject of the sentence.
When you hear or see the sentence "There's a starman waiting in the sky," the noun phrase "a starman" is also acting as the subject.
So what could be the difference between the sentences, if the meaning is the same?
The difference is about style, a way of presenting things, and emphasis.
English speakers will often say the words "there's a" quickly and then emphasize the word directly following, usually the subject of the sentence.
The indefinite article "a" is sending a message that the subject will have new information.
So, when Bowie sings, "There's a starman waiting in the sky," he is setting up the sentence. In this way, he emphasizes the subject of the sentence, which is also the name of the song!
You can hear this structure in other songs. Consider "There's a Place" by the Beatles.
There's a place where I can go…
The Beatles could have said "I can go to a place…"
And that expression would have the same meaning as "There's a place where I can go…"
But as you can hear, the sentence "I can go to a place" does not sound nearly as good as the "There's a place where I can go"!
TIP #1 Use the there transformation when you want to emphasize the subject
You can learn from David Bowie and the Beatles. They are showing you what native English speakers do with their voices when speaking.
Here is the point: if you want to speak or write a sentence that emphasizes the subject, you can use the there transformation. If you want to speak or write a sentence that does not emphasize the subject, you can use a normal sentence.
Both choices are grammatically correct, but their effects are different, because of their use of different grammatical structures.
Expletive there versus adverbial there
Until now, we have talked about the expletive "there" plus an indefinite subject. For example, let’s return to the earlier sentences, "there's a starman" or "there's a place."
What happens when "there is" is followed by a definite subject, such as "the starman" or "the place?"
If you use the definite article "the," you are suggesting that the subject is old, or known information.
If you wanted to change the wording we talked about at the beginning of this report, so that we used "there is the" instead of "there is a," you could say:
"There's the starman we were talking about."
"There's the place I want to go."
When you do this, the meaning of the sentence has changed.
In both examples, you can hear that the emphasis is placed on "there" because it is acting as an adverb – it is giving information about the location, or placement, of the subject. The sound of the sentence is much different than the sentence that begins with "there is a."
In these new sentences, the speakers are noting the location adverb because it is new and important information. In general, they do not emphasize the subject.
You will hear this structure often in everyday speech or in films.
Here is a line from Jackie Brown, a film by Quentin Tarantino.
The American actor Samuel L. Jackson plays a criminal who sells guns and drugs. While watching a television ad for guns, he makes the following comment:
"Now that there is the Tec-9….They advertise this Tec-9 as the most popular gun in American crime."
Tip #2 Emphasize adverbial there
In this sentence, you can hear Jackson emphasize the adverbial "there." He is pointing his finger at the TV screen and emphasizing the position of the gun.
We know that the name of the gun is old or already known because he says "the Tec-9." What is new is the location of the gun – on the television screen.
The difference between "there is a" and "there is the"
The important point in this report is that grammatical structures can have an effect on how a sentence sounds. The purpose of individual words in a sentence can influence how they are said or emphasized.
You will often hear the words "there is a…" in which the subject after the indefinite article is emphasized.
You will also hear "there is the…" in which the adverb, there, is emphasized. The subject is generally not emphasized.
Both of these sentence structures are common in popular music and everyday language.
By understanding how sentence structure and grammar have an effect on pronunciation, you can improve your writing and speaking skills.
You can think about if you are using one structure too often, or if you are not using the right structure for the right situation.
These ideas are difficult, but remember this: native English speakers only use these words and grammatical structures with ease because they have been learning them since birth.
You, too, can learn and master these structures, but it will take time and effort!
I’m Phil Dierking.
And I'm John Russell.
John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.
*A discussion about the grammatical subject and logical subject is beyond the scope of this story.
Words in This Story
emphasize – v. to place emphasis on (something)
transformation – n. a complete or major change in someone's or something's appearance, form, etc.
expletive – n. grammar a word that enables the writer or speaker to move the stress, or emphasis, in a sentence
indefinite article – n. the word a or an used in English to refer to a person or thing that is not identified or specified
definite article – n. the word the used in English to refer to a person or thing that is identified or specified
adverb – n. a word that describes a verb, an adjective, another adverb, or a sentence and that is often used to show time, manner, place, or degree
pronunciation - n. the way in which something is said
phrase – n. a group of words that express an idea, but do not generally form a complete sentence
noun – n. the name for a person, place or thing
grammatical – adj. of or related to the rules of language