The Mystery of the Missing Subject!

One of my students recently asked me:

What is the subject in the following  sentence?

There are many cats on the cold tin roof.

When I asked him to guess, he said “There” was the subject of the sentence. He said this because the usual word order in English is S-V-O. Therefore he thought “There” was the subject of the sentence. But is it so?

Lets analyze the sentence.

Grammar Diagrams

The sentence is about cats so that is the subject. And the verb is are. And we have the preposition on and its object cold tin roof.

So what about there? What role is it playing in the sentence? It is definitely not the subject since we are not talking about there, we are talking about cats.

There here functions as a placeholder. It has no meaning by itself. It is a filler. It is required simply for the sake of grammar. It is a syntactical requirement and has no semantic (meaningful) function.

In fact the above sentence can be re-written as:

Many cats are on the cold tin roofs. 

The meaning is perfectly conveyed even though there is omitted. There is not required.

The technical term for there in the above sentence is an expletive. It means a filler.

Expletives are used when in everyday conversations but you are required to avoid them in formal English.

Another example of an expletive is here.

  • Here is the test to find whether your mission on earth is finished. If you’re alive, it isn’t.”
    (Richard Bach)

The word here in the above sentence is an expletive and is not the subject of the sentence. The sentence can be re-written as:

The test to find out whether your mission on earth is finished is this. If you are alive, it isn’t.

Another commonly used expletive filler or placeholder is the pronoun it.

It is raining.

It is a well known fact that the Chinese regard the turtle as a supernatural.

In the above sentences, it is not the subject, but merely a placeholder and the sentence can be re-written without it. Do it as an exercise.

Also it as a placeholder occurs frequently in statements given out by the weather station. For that reason, it is also called the weather it.

It is hot today. It will rain tomorrow. It snowed in the Arctic yesterday.

 

 

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