'it' and 'there' as dummy subjects

Level: beginner

English clauses always have a subject:

His father has just retired. > He was a teacher. (NOT Was a teacher.)
I'm waiting for my wife.She is late. (NOT Is late.)

... except for the imperative:

Go away.
Play it again, please.

there

If there is no other subject, we use there to talk about:

  • where or when something is:

There's an interesting book on the shelf.
There'll be an eclipse of the moon tonight.

  • a number or amount:

There is plenty of bread left.
There were twenty people at the meeting.

  • something existing or happening:

There's a small problem.
There was a nasty fight.

it

We use it to talk about:

  • times and dates:              

It's nearly one o'clock.
It's my birthday.

  • the weather:

It's raining.
It's a lovely day.
It was getting cold.

We use it with the verb be and an –ing form or to-infinitive to express opinions:

It's great living here.
It's nice to meet you.

Subjects of sentences

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it and there as dummy subjects 1

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it and there as dummy subjects 2

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Average
Average: 4 (17 votes)
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Submitted by samnn on Wed, 26/04/2023 - 14:41

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Hello teacher,
I am quite confused in these sentence 'Give me your book' and Come here.
I know these are imperative sentence but is there subject or imperative sentence has no subject at all?
Can you please clarify ? Thank you

Hello samn,

There are some rare exceptions to this, but in general that's correct: imperatives don't have a subject.

Best wishes,
Kirk
LearnEnglish team

 

Submitted by sb sb on Sun, 23/04/2023 - 19:41

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Hello teachers

I've got a hard time understanding how to use an -ing or an infinitive with a dummy it in a sentence. For example:

- It's dangerous driving so fast.
- It's dangerous to drive so fast.

The key of the book says that the second one is correct, however, the first one also make sense to me.
I'll appreciate it if you help me out.

Hello sb sb,

As you say, the first one is intelligible, but I'm afraid your book is right: only the second one is correct.

Unfortunately, there's no simple rule to tell you when to use an infinitive or '-ing' form in a sentence beginning with 'It is ...'. I'd say infinitives are more common than '-ing' forms, but that's not really a useful rule!

When you're not sure what form to use, I'd recommend looking up the adjective in a dictionary with lots of example sentences to see if you can find how it is used. For example, have a look at this entry for 'dangerous' (linked). Under the first meaning, you'll see 'it is dangerous for somebody to do something' with an example sentence with an infinitive.

All the best,
Kirk
LearnEnglish team

Submitted by howtosay_ on Mon, 19/12/2022 - 02:14

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Hello!

Could I ask to clarify the following concerning "There is" and "There are structures' ' ? (I'm sorry that I haven't found this topic on the website to ask my questions there, but I was trying to). If each object is listed separately, do you say "There was no electricity, lights and water" or "There were no electricity, lights and water". Does it depend on plural or uncountable nouns? If we have both, do you say "There was no bread and banana" or "There were no bread and banana?"

Could I change the sentence "There is a small problem" into "We have a small problem". Are they interchangeable? 

Hello howtosay_,

No worries. We're writing a page on this topic right now, but I'm happy to answer your questions here for now.

When a list follows 'there is' or 'there are', we generally use 'there is', even though what follows is a series of nouns -- it doesn't matter whether they are countable or uncountable.

Yes, you could certainly use 'We have a small problem' instead of the version with 'there is'. It's possible that they're some difference in some context, but in general I'd say they are interchangeable.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by JameK on Mon, 24/10/2022 - 08:12

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Sir, could you explain me the definite article in the sentence?
"It is you''
"It is Jhon''
Is that mean it = Jhon, you?
Can we use the word it to refer to a human?

Hello JameK,

In the very specific situations mentioned at the bottom of our Personal pronouns page, yes, 'it' can refer to people. But most of the time, we use 'he' or 'she' or 'they' (or their object forms 'him', 'her' or 'them').

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Sajatadib on Thu, 01/09/2022 - 09:30

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Hello please help me clarify the difference between : It's always a pleasure talking to you and It's always a pleasure to talk to you.Many thanks.

Submitted by Khatuna. on Sat, 22/01/2022 - 16:00

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Hello!
Please explain why in the sentence - There are two big spiders in the bath. – subject is There, not spiders.
Khatuna

Hello Khatuna,

As the information on the page explains, 'there' is an example of a dummy subject. When we want to talk about something being present rather than something doing an action we generally use a dummy subject like 'there':

'There are two spiders in the bath.'
'There is a man outside.'

Some languages do this in a different way, using the noun as the subject ('Two spiders are in the bath') but this is not the normal way we say it in English.

Peter
The LearnEnglish Team

I am very sorry but I didn't understand the subject in the following sentences.

1) There is a problem.
2) Here is a problem.

Hello Prakash,

We use 'there' as a dummy subject when we simply want to say that something exists or does not exist:

There is a shower in the bedroom.

There are over 7 billion people in the world.

There aren't any dragons in the world.

We use 'here' when we are presenting something to someone or want to draw someone's attention to something we have found or noticed:

Here's your coffee. [when giving it to a person]

Here's a problem. [I've found a problem]

Here are my ideas. [let me tell you what I think]

 

I hope that helps to clarify it for you.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you Peter.😊

A Problem is.
There is a problem.

Have Both sentences same meaning?
What is the Word 'Problem' here?

Hello Prakash,

In a specific context -- for example, as a short answer to a question -- it could possibly work, but out of context, the first sentence is not really correct in English. If you want to say that a problem exists, then you could say 'There is a problem', 'A problem exists', or 'We have a problem'.

Actually, other sentences are also possible, but in general, the first one with 'there is' is the one people use the most.

In 'There is a problem', 'a problem' is a noun phrase and subject of the sentence.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Risa warysha on Wed, 15/12/2021 - 10:21

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Hallo, team.
Could you please help me with this sentence.
1. It's Marie, who delivered the package.
2. It's Marie, delivering the package.
Which one is grammatically correct? And why is the other incorrect?

Thank you very much

Hello Risa warysha,

There should be no comma after 'Marie' in either sentence. I understand 1 to be speaking about a past delivery and 2 to be speaking about a future delivery (or a delivery in progress).

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

1. It is called Cleft sentence, cleft sentence ( IT ) is used to emphasize one word in a sentence ( Subject, Object, and Adverbial )

2. it is called reduced adjective clause , it is used as an adjective describing a noun in front of it.

I think that we need not add a comma.

Submitted by Nevı on Fri, 25/06/2021 - 12:09

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Hi superb team! I am confused about one thing and want to ask a question about that. When should I use dummy subjects? I mean, for example, I saw following example 'There are five Dutch people in our' village. ' When I say ' Five Dutch people are in our village.' What's the meaning difference between two sentences above? You'd be really helping me out.

Hello Nevi,

It depends a bit on the situation, but in general the sentence with 'there' as a dummy subject makes a statement about something existing and presents this information as important in a way that the other sentence does not, at least not to the same degree.

In other words, the first sentence calls more attention to the fact that those five people are in the village. Often the sentence with 'there' would make more sense to raise a topic for further comment, whereas the second one would be more likely when we expect that the listener already knows we're about to say more about an issue that's already been raised in some way.

It's difficult to explain very clearly without a more specific situation in mind, but I hope that helps.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Larrie on Sat, 06/03/2021 - 16:18

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Hello staff Would you please tell me if this sentence grammatically acceptable? When you do that makes me nervous.

Hello Larrie,

That's not quite right. You need a subject for the verb 'makes':

When you do that it makes me nervous.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Kaisoo93 on Tue, 26/01/2021 - 13:41

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Hello Teachers, Is my understanding of 'it' being dummy subjects correct as below? 1) It's not worth buying the book. -- 'it' is a dummy subject 2) Buying the book is not worth it -- 'it' is not a dummy subject 3) It (dummy) is worth it (not dummy) to buy the book = It (dummy) is worth buying the book = It is worth it buying the book ? 4) The movie sucks, it is not worth $15. = It (dummy) is not worth it ($15) watching the movie. Thanks

Submitted by ayaka310 on Fri, 06/11/2020 - 21:56

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Hello, I'm doing CELTA and I have a question. Example sentence: There is a roof terrace. I said 'there' is a dummy subject and 'a roof terrace' is the real subject, but my tutor strongly argued that 'there' is the subject and 'a roof terrace' is an object. Can a dummy subject be a real subject? Should I decide the subject of a sentence based on the position of a word or the meaning of the sentence? Thanks!
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Submitted by Peter M. on Sat, 07/11/2020 - 08:37

In reply to by ayaka310

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Hello ayaka310,

The concept of dummy subjects (there) is one which causes some controversy and there are different schools of thought on this. Personally, I am quite comfortable with the idea.

However, I would not say 'a roof terrace' is the object here. In this sentence 'a roof terrace' is a complement, which means a word or phrase which completes the meaning of an expression. Here, it would be a subject complement.

These are really areas of analysis which go beyond language teaching and into linguistics. They are very interesting and if you want to pursue this a grammar handbook aimed at linguistics students is a good place to look.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Peter, Thank you very much for your reply. I did further research and now have better understanding of this form. I totally agree with you in the point that 'a roof terrace' is a complement. 'is' does not show any actions, so that the noun phrase cannot be an object.
I'd have another think about it, if I were you. It's really just a case of inverted word order. If I remember rightly, Fowler's Modern Usage lists 8 ways English inverts the usual order of: Subject (auxiliary) verb plus complements. This is one of them: The "normal" word would be A roof (subject) is (verb) there (adverb of place) "There is/are/were..." etc are very practical ways to talk about the things that are "there".
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Submitted by giorgio.scc on Thu, 05/11/2020 - 10:51

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Hello, Which option sounds better? Is there any subtle difference between them? a) Does there exist this grammatical construction? b) Does this grammatical construction exist?
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Submitted by Jonathan R on Thu, 05/11/2020 - 13:12

In reply to by giorgio.scc

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Hi giorgio.scc,

Option b is definitely the more common one. Option a (with there exist) has quite a literary or formal style. It's good to be aware of these style differences :)

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Rosie on Sat, 03/10/2020 - 16:31

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Hi! I've just found this sentence "There continued the evening outings, parties, and get-togethers" (in O. Pamuk's English version of "The museum of Innocence"); I had never seen the use of there as a subject not followed by the verb be. Is it grammatical? Thanks!

Hi Rosie,

Well spotted! Yes, it is grammatical. There can be followed by verbs other than be, but this has quite a literary or formal style. It's much lesson common in everyday speaking and writing. Here are some examples.

  • When I was younger, there existed a great feeling of community in our town.
  • There remains nothing left to do.
  • There came a point when his patience ran out.

Does that help?

Best wishes,

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Samin on Wed, 23/09/2020 - 15:23

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Hello there Can you pls tell me the difference between common and neuter gender? For example The child loved the puppy so much that, he took it everywhere with him. Here 'it' as what gender common / neuter

Hello Samin,

Generally, we don't use 'it' for people. An exception is with babies, when it is possible to use 'it' if the gender of the baby is not known. Usually, though, when we don't know the gender of a person or we don't want to assume any gender we use 'they':

You should see a doctor. They'll give you some advice.

 

With animals you can use 'it', though for pets we often use 'he' or 'she' if we know the pet's sex.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Vishaaal on Thu, 18/06/2020 - 06:38

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Hii. 1) It is an old saying. 2) There is an old saying. Which one is correct (1)or(2)
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Submitted by Peter M. on Thu, 18/06/2020 - 07:18

In reply to by Vishaaal

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Hello Vishaaal,

Both forms are grammatically possible.

 

If you have said the saying in the sentence before, then the first one is possible. It describes what was just said. For example:

Many hands make light work. It's an old saying, but it's still true.

 

If the saying is in the next sentence, then the second sentence is better.

There's an old saying which I like: many hands make light work.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by OlaIELTS on Wed, 03/06/2020 - 16:10

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It's really helpful.

Submitted by H_L on Thu, 30/04/2020 - 05:03

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Hello, Can you please explain the following questions for me in "subjects in the sentences" part? Isn't the subject the person who's doing the act? So number 4. Smoking is bad for you. I'm the one who's smoking so I'm the subject? and No.5 It would be great to see you again some time. I'm the one who'll be happy to see him again so also I'm the subject? "me" ? Also, 8. Eating chocolate always makes me feel better. Could you please help me to understand how we chose the subjects in those sentences?
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Submitted by Peter M. on Thu, 30/04/2020 - 07:12

In reply to by H_L

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Hello H_L,

When we talk about language, subject is a grammatical question which is all about how the sentence is put together, not about actions in the real world.

The subject is the word (or phrase) which controls the verb. In other words, the verb agrees with the subject (in form) and if the subject changes (from singular to plural, for example), then the verb changes too.

In sentence 4, the verb is is controlled by the subject Smoking. The fact that it is a person who is smoking is irrelevant in terms of the grammar of the sentence.

In sentence 5, the verb phrase would be is controlled by the subject It.

In sentence 8, the verb makes is controlled by the phrase Eating chocolate.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you so much! Your answer clarifies lots of things but also raises the question of how to find the subject in any sentence? I used to ask myself self, who did the verb? And that would be the subject of the sentence, but I guess that is wrong now! If I find a phrase that agrees with the verb in a sentence, would that always be the subject?

Hello H_L,

As I said, subject is a grammatical category within the sentence. You need to identify which word controls the verb. There may be more than one word which agrees with the verb in the sentence - there may be several singular nouns, for example - but the subject (word or phrase) is the one which controls the verb. In other words, the subject is the word or phrase which can make the verb change if it is changed.

 

In the end, you need to look at the sentence and at how its elements interact. In English there is no marker which identifies the subject in isolation, unlike in some other languages.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you so much. I really appreciate your help.

Submitted by Wiz4it on Mon, 18/11/2019 - 19:04

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1- What we call the words "It and There" in Grammar [for example: Pronoun, Adverb or any other parts of speech]? 2- What we call the sentence [type] in Grammar in which "It and There" are used [for example: Introductory Sentence or any other sentence type].

Hello Wiz4it

There are different ways of referring to these kinds of structures, but the one I'm most familiar with is the one used on this page: the idea of sentences with 'dummy subjects' (follow the link to see an explanation on another site). So you could speak of sentences with 'it' as a dummy subject or sentences with 'there' as a dummy subject. As far as I know, 'there' is an adverb in this kind of sentence, and 'it' is a pronoun, though I expect others might say they are both pronouns of a sort.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by goldenmine on Fri, 11/10/2019 - 10:14

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'be' in 'there be' is a linking verb or intransitive verb? thanks