Smarthinking


Smarthinking ESOL Writer's Handbook

Chapter 3, Lesson 22

Beginning Sentences with "It is" and "There is"


 

Objective

In this lesson, we will look at two common ways of beginning sentences. We will see how they differ and what sentence patterns follow them.

Why are it is and there is difficult for some writers?

As you know, speakers and writers of English often begin their sentences with the expressions "It is" and "There is." These two expressions can be a bit tricky for ESL writers for two reasons.

(1) Both expressions, though very common and very useful, are grammatical devices that don't have much real meaning in themselves. We're used to thinking that all words must really mean something, and we have a hard time thinking clearly about words that do a grammatical job but don't have a clear meaning. We'll talk about this in more detail later.

(2) In some other languages, there are grammatical devices that do nearly the same jobs as it is and there is, but the actual words used in those languages usually have quite different meanings. For example, German has an expression that works like the English there is, but the actual words used would be translated literally as "it gives." The French equivalent of there is would be translated as "it has there." Chinese, Thai, Malay/Indonesian, and Spanish all use the word for "has" or "have" to do the same job as the English there is. As we look later at just how there is works in English sentences, try to decide whether your first language has an expression that serves the same purpose. If so, be sure you don't start confusing the two languages. Some speakers of Chinese, Thai, Malay/Indonesian, and Spanish, for example, occasionally say things like "there has" or "there have" - things that just don't exist in English. That's because they're mixing up the English "there is" with the equivalent expression, using the word for "have," in their own languages.

How can it is have no meaning?

Before we start thinking about it is as a grammatical device, we need to be clear about what we're not thinking about. We're not thinking about it is in sentences using it as just an ordinary pronoun standing for a noun, as in the little conversation below:

Draman: What is that funny-looking animal?
Fatimata: It's a slow loris. It lives in trees and moves only at night.

Here, it has a definite meaning: it "means" the noun it stands for, which is "animal."

So that's not the kind of it is or it's that we're talking about. Instead, we're talking about it is in sentences like these:

(a) It was sad to see that old building burn.
(b) It will be fun seeing my hometown again.

In sentence (a) above, it doesn't stand for the noun "building" or for the infinitive "see."
In sentence (b), it doesn't stand for the noun "fun" or for the gerund "seeing." In fact, neither use of it stands for anything; that's why I'm suggesting that the expressions it was and it will be in those sentences have no "meaning" at all.

Some grammar books call this use of it is the "anticipatory it is." "Anticipatory" means "coming before" or "looking forward to," and that's just what it is does. The expression is a way of preparing the listener or the reader for the idea that's coming later in the sentence, and as I've said, it is very commonly used in English.

What about there is? Does there is have any meaning at all?

Books that use the term "anticipatory it is" also use the term "anticipatory there is." Here again we have to say first that we are not talking about situations that may look the same but aren't — situations where there is an adverb indicating place. Here's a conversation where there is an adverb:

Yuan-Heng: I can't remember where I parked my car.
Cesar: There's your car.
Yuan-Heng: Where?
Cesar: Over there next to that green Yugo.

When Cesar says "there" in those sentences, the word means "in that place."

In sentences where there is is the "anticipatory there is," the word doesn't indicate a place at all. The entire expression there is does have a bit more "meaning" than it is, however: it indicates the existence of something, as in these sentences:

(a) There were several people in front of me.
(b) There should have been a smoke alarm in the apartment.

These two sentences do have phrases that indicate location: "in front of me" in sentence (a), and "in the apartment" is sentence (b). In both sentences, however, there does not indicate location.

How do it is and there is differ?

These two anticipatory expressions are used in different sentence patterns, as you'll see below. Even in the few cases where they can be used in the same sentence patterns, the sentences mean different things. For example, the sentence

It is time for us to wash the dishes.

means we have a job to do and must start now. On the other hand, the sentence

There is time for us to wash the dishes.

means we have enough time available to get the job done, but we don't necessarily have to do the job right now.

What are the common sentence patterns using it is?

The anticipatory it is occurs in seven common patterns. Notice that in these examples, I haven't always used the word is at all. Words like "was" or "would be," or any form of the verb be, can be used in the it is construction. Here are the patterns:

(1) it is + an adjective + an infinitive verb with to

It was easy to find our friends.

(2) it is + an adjective + for + a noun or a pronoun + an infinitive verb with toM/span>

It would be unusual for Megumi to stay in bed so late.

(3) it is + an adjective + a clause

It is strange that the dogs didn't start barking.

(4) it is + an adjective + an -ing verbal form

It is useless arguing with Mr. Garba.

(5) it is + a noun + an infinitive verb with to

It's a mistake to start the day with no breakfast.

(6) it is + a noun + for + a noun or a pronoun + an infinitive verb with to

It would be a pity for Lee to miss the graduation ceremony.

(7) it is + a noun + a clause

It's a shame that you failed the test.

(By the way, this sentence doesn't mean "You have been shamed" or "You should feel ashamed." It just means "I'm very sorry about your bad luck." So don't get angry if someone says something like this to you.)

Notice that in all the sentences above, the subject of the sentence is the word it. Therefore the verb in all of the sentences must be singular, as we see in sentence (1) - "It was" even though later in the sentence we read about "our friends" - and in sentence (3) - "It is" even though later we read about "the dogs." Whenever you use the grammatical device it is, the verb will be singular.

What are the common sentence patterns using there is?

The anticipatory there is occurs in two common sentence patterns:

(1) there is + a noun

There's a problem.

(2) there is + a noun + some words that give more information

There are three mistakes on page 20. [Here we have information in a prepositional phrase that tells about the location of the mistakes.]

There are two questions that we need answers to. [Here the information is in an adjective clause describing the questions.]

There were several people waiting at the bus stop. [Here the information is in a participial phrase describing the people.]

Notice that the expression there is is sometimes singular (as in "There's a problem.") and sometimes plural (As in "There are three mistakes."). That's a big difference between it is and there is. A sentence beginning It is is always singular, since the subject of such a sentence is always it. In sentences beginning There is, the word there is not the subject. Instead, the subject is the noun that follows the verb. In the sentences we looked at above, the subjects were "problem," "mistakes," "questions," and "people."

And notice that all of our sentences that follow the pattern there is + a noun + some words that give more information are careful to supply that information in a way that fits grammatically. In several languages that use expressions similar to there is, one can say things that we can't say in English, like

X There are two questions need answers to. X

or

X There were several people waited at the bus stop. X

From the point of view of English grammar, the verbs "need" and "waited" in the examples above need to be fitted properly into the sentences, as they were in our original examples with the adjective clause "that we need answers to" and the participial phrase "waiting at the bus stop." If your first language allows sentences similar to the "X-rated" ones above, be careful to avoid mistakes of this sort in English.

Now let's expand our idea of there is to include some other verbs. These verbs can also be used in anticipatory expressions with there:

appear
There appears to be a crack in the window.

come
There came a time when no one remembered the old traditions.

exist
There once existed a second entrance to the cave, but it was closed by a landslide long ago.

remain
There remain only a few copies of the Gutenberg Bible.

seem
There seems to have been a misunderstanding about our reservations.

How often should we use it is and there is?

You're going to hate what I say now. After giving you so much advice about how these two anticipatory expressions work, now what I want to say is that most writers of English use these expressions too much, and should remove some of them during the editing process.

When we're writing a first draft of a paper, sometimes we get into the habit of using it is and there is just to get ourselves started, more or less like warming up the engine of a car. If that's how you warm up, okay, but when you start editing your paper, think about removing some of those essentially meaningless openings. Let's look at some of the examples I've used earlier. They were grammatically correct, but sometimes they led me to write rather weak, flabby sentences. Look below to see how they can be rewritten and made stronger.

Weak: There should have been a smoke alarm in the apartment.
Stronger: The apartment should have had a smoke alarm.

Weak: It would be unusual for Megumi to stay in bed so late.
Stronger:
Megumi wouldn't usually stay in bed so late.

Weak: It is useless trying to argue with Mr. Garba.
Stronger: No one can argue with Mr. Garba.

Weak: It's a mistake to start the day with no breakfast.
Stronger:
Without breakfast, you'll be weak and sluggish.

Weak: There are three mistakes on page 20.
Stronger: Page 20 has three mistakes.

Weak: There were several people waiting at the bus stop.
Stronger: Several people were waiting at the bus stop.

Weak: There came a time when no one remembered the old traditions.
Stronger: Finally, no one remembered the old traditions.

Do you see how it is and there is can sometimes make your writing rather lifeless? I'm not at all suggesting that you should always avoid these expressions, for they can be very useful at times. Do, however, make a mental note to yourself to think about rewriting some "it is/there is" sentences when you edit your work.

 

Exercise

You'll find below two versions of a short piece of writing, the beginning of a history paper. In Version 1, I think I've used it is and there is too often. I've put the it is/there is sentences in boldface so you'll find them easily. My use of these expressions is, at least, grammatically correct, so you're welcome to observe them as grammatical models. What I'd like you to do, though, is to edit my writing by rewriting some of the sentences to remove the flabby anticipatory expressions. Then you can click Compare to take a look at how I revised my own writing.

Version 1
One of the chief differences between the traditional societies of Europe and China was in the rules governing the ownership of land. Not only were there differences in the rules themselves, but they were the causes of other differences between the two societies.

In China, when a landowner died, there was an equal division of the land belonging to him among all his sons. As a result, there was a good reason for each son to stay on the land and to obey his father, for when his father died it was certain that a portion of the land would belong to the son. In this way, it was possible for families to continue living on the same land for many years, and there were strong family feelings built up. There were very few individuals, however, who ever owned really large estates, for it was always necessary to keep dividing the land into smaller and smaller portions for the sons of each generation.

In Europe, on the other hand, there was no such division of the land, for the Roman legal system of "primogeniture" was followed. That is, when there was the death of a father, all of his property went to the eldest son. There was nothing at all received by the younger sons. A great landowner would give his younger sons a good education and try to get them started in suitable careers, but it was clear to every younger son that someday it would be necessary to take care of himself. There was thus less reason for him than for the Chinese younger son to obey his father, and it was necessary for him to direct his energies into activities other than land ownership. It was common for him to try for a career in the church or, after the fourteenth century, in the army. It was possible for huge estates to grow steadily in Europe, for each eldest son received his father's entire property and attempted to add to it.

Summary

The anticipatory expressions it is and there is are useful at times, but most writers use them more than they should. When we use them, we need to be sure we're using them in the normal sentence patterns.

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