Most, if not all, EFL textbooks first introduce existential clauses through either singular/plural (There is a…/There are some…) or mass/count (There is some…/There are some…) distinctions. This, however, I think misses the whole point of the existential process. Singular and mass etc. are additional information that is mapped onto the clause. The unmarked existential Process seems to be actually There’s…, with a negative of There’s no…, regardless of whether it is count or mass. I’ve tried it a few times with native English (usually British or Australian) speakers with picture description. Show a picture of fruit and ask them what fruit is in the picture. Invariably, when they are just indicating existence, they will use There’s… for both count and mass.
On the BNC, some numbers are:
- There’s – 32,210 hits
- There is – 58,353
- There are – 40,007
- There’s no – 4,386
- There isn’t – 944
- There aren’t – 439
- There’s [noun.SG] – 610
- There’s [noun.PL] – 353
So, I think the traditional approach of concentrating on the count/mass distinction does not really reflect accurately the usage of the existential clause. In my own classes, I try to use There’s…/There’s no… for speaking activities without worrying so much about mass or count and then for writing activities, where more information needs to be made textually explicit, I’ll get students using There is…/There are… more consciously.
An existential clause, such as There was an old person of Dover, functions to “represent that something exists or happens…The word there in such clauses is neither a participant nor a circumstance – it has no representational function in the transitivity structure of the clause; but it serves to indicate the feature of existence, and it is needed interpersonally as a Subject” (H & M, p.257). The second part of the clause, the “entity or event which is being said to exist” (H & M, p.258) is labelled the Existent.
Students may often confuse the existential ‘there’ with the circumstantial ‘there’. A good example from H & M (p.258) is to compare There’s your father on the line (existential) with There’s your father (circumstantial relational). Note that the response to the first is Oh, is there? while that for the second is Oh, is he?
The existential clause itself, however, may contain “a distinct circumstantial element of time or place” (H & M, p.258) in which, if thematic, the Subject there may be omitted, such as On the wall (there) was a Picasso painting, but will appear in the response Oh, is there? This circumstantial element may also be reflected in the choice of verb as Process, which is not necessarily be but may almost merge into the material, such as On the wall (there) hangs a Picasso painting. This may also be followed by a non-finite clause as a “way of ‘locating’ the process in space-time” (H & M, p.258):
There stood G. F. Westerby, looking pleased with
himself, staring out over the decades (BNC)
The second element in the figure of the clause as representation is the Participants, which “are inherent in the process: every experiential type of clause has at least one participant” (H & M, p.175). The type of participant (bold) is dependent on the process (underlined) involved:
1. Actor + Process: material – The lion ran.
2. Senser + Process: mental – The tourist noticed the lion.
3a. Carrier + Process: relational + Attribute – The lion was hungry.
3b. Token + Process: relational + Value – The lion was the king of the jungle.
4. Behaver + Process: behavioural – The tourist screamed.
5. Sayer + Process: verbal – The police announced there would be a search.
6. Existent + Process: existential – There was no trace.