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there and it as preparatory subjects
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Vannek from Cambodia writes:

I'm not sure how to use it and there. I have
tried to read the explanations in grammar books but I still cannot understand the difference. I'm looking forward to hearing from you.


Roger Woodham replies:

it and there as preparatory subjects

Both it and there function as a kind of preparatory subject with the real subject placed after the verb. But they are used in different ways and for different purposes.


there + be + noun phrase

We use there with the verb to be to indicate that something exists or does not exist. The thing that exists is always a noun or noun phrase. Note that be can take many different forms: is / are / was / were / will be / going to be / has been / may have been / seems to be / etc. Compare the following:

  • Waiter, there's a fly in my soup! (Rather than: Waiter, a fly is in my soup!)
  • She must have been at home. There was a light at her window.
  • I can hear thunder in the distance. There's going to be a storm.
  • There's been an outbreak of measles in Manchester.
  • No water is getting through. There seems to be /
    may be
    a blockage in the downpipe.

As you can see, we use there + be to identify subjects that have indefinite articles. We also use this structure with indefinite determiners (no, some, any) and with indefinite pronouns (anything, something, nobody, someone):

  • I think there will be a power cut this afternoon. Are there any candles in the house?
  • There's something worrying you, isn't there?
    ~ I can't get through to Brenda on the phone. I think there must be something wrong.

We often use this structure with sense, point, and need:

  • There isn't any sense / any point in going out to the shops now. They'll be closing in five minutes.
  • There's no need to worry. I'm sure she's safe at home.
    She wouldn't go out in a storm.

Note that when the subject in question has already been identified or there is no doubt that it exists, there is no need to use this structure. It would sound unnatural:

  • I've found the candles, but are there any matches? ~ Yes!
    ~ Where are the matches? ~ The matches are in the same drawer as the candles.
    (NOT: There are the matches in the same drawer as the candles.)
  • Are you going out, Brenda?
    ~ Yes, Brian is waiting for me outside.
    (NOT: There is Brian waiting for me outside.)

it + be + adj + to + infinitive

Here, it + be combines with an adjective and an infinitive clause to describe how something is. It is a more natural way of doing it than starting with the infinitive clause as the subject. Compare the following:

  • It's lovely to see you again. (Rather than: To see you again is lovely.)
  • It was thoughtful of you to remember my birthday.
    (NOT: To remember my birthday was thoughtful of you.)
  • If you want a good seat, it's advisable to book in advance. (Better than: To book in advance is advisable if you want a good seat.)
  • It's important not to use a mobile phone whilst you are driving.
    (NOT: Not to use a mobile phone whilst you are driving is important.)


it + be + adjective + clause

Preparatory it is also very common when the delayed subject is a that-clause, a wh-clause, an ing-clause or an if-clause. Again, it is a more natural way of doing it than starting with the clause itself. Compare the following:

  • It's not certain whether he'll be there or not.
    (NOT: Whether he'll be there or not is not certain.)
  • It will be sad for everyone, if he is forced to resign.
  • It was fun looking after the children while you were away.
  • But it was crazy her going off like that without telling anyone.
  • It is quite immaterial what you think about it.
  • It's wonderful when children take their first steps.
  • It's odd that Jane has never come back to see them.
  • It's unbelievable that she doesn't seem to care.

it takes …. + to + infinitive

We also use preparatory it to talk about the amount of time needed to complete something:

  • How long did it take you to get from Birmingham to Glasgow?
    ~ Oh, it took ages. It took (me) three hours to get from Manchester to Carlisle.
  • It will take me a whole week to write up that project.


it or there

Uniquely with use as a noun, we can use either it or there as preparatory subjects. It doesn't matter which we use! Compare the following:

  • It's no use getting angry with the waiter. It's not his fault that there's a fly in your soup.
  • There's no use getting angry with the waiter. It's not his fault there's a fly in your soup.

If you would like more practice more please visit our Message Board in the You, Me and Us part of our website.

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