Advanced: What was happening?

We're going to look at one more type of simple sentence which needs a little more understanding of conventional grammar than what we've looked at so far.

There was a low, mocking laugh behind him.

In this snippet, what exactly is the word 'there'? Is it a place? A thing?

It's not really either of those things. This is where our conventional grammar comes in.

Most sentences in English follow a basic pattern called subject-verb-(object) ('object' is in brackets because not all sentences need an object).

  • The 'subject' is whatever is doing the action.
  • The 'verb' is the action.
  • The '(object)' is what the action is being done to.

So in a sentence like:

Ao-fei ate the sandwich.

  • The central verb is 'ate'.
  • The object eaten is 'the sandwich'.
  • The subject doing the eating is 'Ao-fei'.

Nice and straightforward.

Now let's look at our original snippet again.

There was a low, mocking laugh behind him.

  • The action is 'being'.
  • The object that is being is 'a low mocking laugh'.
  • The subject that is doing the being is... wait—that doesn't make sense.

What or who is being a low, mocking laugh? There's no good answer—the laugh just 'is'.

But the English language makes us put something as a placeholder anyway. The fancy term is an 'empty subject' (because grammatically it's a subject but it doesn't actually mean anything).

Let's look at a few more examples.

It was just after dark.

It always rains.

Some people think empty subjects are bad writing. This isn't necessarily true, but we don't want to get into a whole thing about it here.

However, when you're reading or writing something that feels a bit bland, count how many sentences start with 'there was' or 'it was' type statements. 

Chances are, there'll be a few. In that case, a little 'rearranging' can go a long way. For example:

"There was a low, mocking laugh behind him."

Could be rewritten as:

"A low, mocking laugh sounded behind him."

We've done two things here. First, we moved the 'thing' (the 'low, mocking laugh') from object position to subject position, making the sentence sound a bit more active. That then forced us to find a different verb to describe what was happening.

What do you think? Is it better? 🤷‍♀️ 

When would you use the original phrasing rather than something like our rewrite? 🤔 

Write your own sentence where the action isn't being done by anything (using 'it' or 'there' as a grammatical placeholder).

In this snippet from Jackie French's Beyond the Boundaries, the last two sentences begin with 'it'—but one is empty, and one is not. Can you tell the difference?

'Aaah!' Martin muffled a scream. But the water wasn't boiling. It was as hot as a shower at home. It had just been the shock.

With the context of the previous sentence, we can see that the first 'it' is actually a pronoun referring to the water. "The water was as hot as a shower at home." 

So we can see that not every 'it-was'-type phrase will have empty subjects.

But what is the second 'it' referring to? 

Does it mean "The scream had just been the shock"? Not exactly. "The water had just been the shock"? Doesn't really make sense either. 

The empty 'it' really means 'the reason': "the reason he screamed wasn't the heat, it was the shock of the water".

But notice how spelling it all out starts to sound clunky and obvious? That's part of the reason why empty subjects exist: so that we can use context to communicate more smoothly and quickly.

What about 'there'?

Just as 'it' can stand in for a 'thing''there' can stand in for a 'place'.

For example:

We went to the museum.


We went there.

However, 'places', which are usually created using prepositional phrases like in the example above, can't usually fill the grammatical subject position. So if a sentence starts with 'there was...' it's almost certainly empty.

Let's look at an example. We can say:

The museum is crumbling.

We could replace "the museum" with the pronoun, 'it' and get:

It is crumbling.

Which means that "the museum" is a 'thing'. And when we say:

There is crumbling.

'There' is empty, and we mean something less concrete, like "crumbling is happening" (but we don't know what is crumbling, or where).