Today, we’re talking about sentences that begin with the word “there.” There is. There are. There was. There were. There have been. There will be.
Can you feel me cringing?
Technically, it’s not wrong to begin a sentence that way. But it is bad style. Using “there” phrases is passive. It’s boring, often confusing, and unnecessary. You can help your writing and your readers by elimination the word entirely.
Yawn: “There is always a way to eliminate the word ‘there.’ ”
Better: “A way to eliminate the word ‘there’ always exists.”
Passive versus active
Everyone recognizes good writing as that which sucks you in. We’re beside the old man in line for the guillotine. We cry with the 9 year old boy who lost his mother to cancer. Or we get seasick alongside Orange Juice (read “Life of Pi.”) But readers don’t generally get there with passive voice. It’s too easy to leave out the person or thing doing the action.
Yawn: “There was a car accident.” (And?)
Better: “The neighbor crashed his car.”
Best: “The neighbor crashed his black Toyota Tundra into a stop sign up the street.”
The last sentence tells you who did what, and where. It holds plenty of detail, yet won’t overwhelm the reader.
Please, please, please tell me your story. Carry me right down into it and hold me the entire time. If you’re not concise, I’m bored. Quickly.
Yawn: “There was no way I was going back in there.” (Huh?)
Better: “I was not going back in there.” (Oh.)
Best: “I was not going back into that house.” (Got it.)
Don’t make your readers guess. Don’t leave blanks for them to fill in. The whole point of reading is to escape. Don’t force us to imagine our own scenario. Details, please.
Yawn: “There’s something about the way he looks at me.” (Like what?)
Better: “Something about the way he looks at me steals my breath.” (Ah.)
Best: “The way he looks at me, crouched down and hungry, steals my breath.” (Goosebumps.)
When we use “there” phrases, we set up a sentence with a subject and verb, and a “dummy” subject. The dummy subject – the word that is NOT the subject at all –is the word “there.” And it confuses the reader. Writers clarify by being specific, adding detail. Our task is to make it better.
Want more? Try removing “there” from the following:
• There are three characters in the play that are very important.
• There have been a few unsuccessful attempts at imitating his style.
• There was a brown bear in one of my favorite books as a child.
• There are several tall pines near the rusty cemetery gate.
• There was a bright full moon smiling at them.