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Jul
19
2014

Existential Clause: An Invisible Source of Passive Prose -- by Candance Moore

There is a strong likelihood that you've never heard of existential clause.

You've likely never heard of existential clause.

See the difference in those two statements? The first uses what grammarians call an existential clause – “there is” something going on. It has many effective uses, but it's also given to misuse, and when a writer uses it poorly, it weakens prose.

Strunk & White say existential clauses are passive voice due to the wrong word acting as a sentence's subject. For example:

A bird sits on my window ledge.

There is a bird sitting on my window ledge.

The first version clearly has a proper subject (bird) doing the only verb (sit). The second version inserts an unneeded to-be, and worse yet, some unknown “there” seems to be the culprit. The point of the sentence (a bird sitting) becomes subordinate to a mystical “there” stealing the spotlight.

Some grammarians disagree about whether it is technically passive voice. However, everyone agrees that poor use of it creates weak, dull, passive-sounding narration. After all, if you were writing about a bird on a ledge, which version would you probably choose?

Poor Uses of Existential Clause

Writers misuse this clause the most when they lazily borrow common sayings. I might say “it is raining” in daily speech, but “rain fell on my windshield” makes for better prose. In this example, the existential version holds me back because it limits my ability to make the rain interesting. The fact of rain's mere existence is not enough to captivate readers.

Existential clause also tends to show up a lot when writers get stuck in Was Verbing syndrome. There was a man standing in the rain. It was raining hard, but the man didn't move. This was odd to Protagonist. It was time for Protagonist to investigate. Thus is the moment our story begins. See how plodding, how weak, this sounds? See how many times to-be shows up when you don't even need it?

Effective Uses of Existential Clause

This clause shines best when you have an existential event or relationship to show. For example:

There are those who want to stop me. This sentence works because it conveys deliberately unnamed or unknown people posing an abstract threat. It creates a mood of existential goings on. You could easily reword this into more 'active' prose, but you would lose its legitimate existential flavor.

These are the times that try men's souls. Thomas Paine's famous quote works because the times he referred to were so extraordinary. He creates a sense of existential destiny for the times, thus making the situation feel more meaningful. He isolates his times as the times, the one moment, set apart from every other generation. That existential destiny was the point of his statement, so an existential clause helped him show it.

It's not like we were friends. Feel the existential emotion behind this sentence? Rewrite it into active prose in your head, and see if any other version captures that same sensation. This existential version conveys a clear emotion – that some desirable thing had hinged on a nonexistent friendship. Again we see, the speaker has an existential point to make, and this clause makes it clear.

Note: This is not a complete list of every scenario. These three examples should get your mind going and help you start to notice more in daily life. Just remember that existential clause works best when you have something existential to say.

 

Editors don't hate to-be when you use it well: they hate it because to-be so often seems to appear in abundance for no discernible benefit, as shown in the poor examples above. Choose your to-be appearances more wisely, and you'll minimize the odds of critters complaining.

Existential clause can evoke strong emotion when you use it effectively. Just make sure you know how to do that.

Posted by Candance Moore 19 Jul 2014 at 01:15
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Responses to this blog

Fairchild 19 Jul 2014 at 09:33  
Interesting information. Thanks.
Susieq 19 Jul 2014 at 10:02  
Thank you for the clarification. Wonderful post.
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Suzie Q
Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed. ― G.K. Chesterton

Fields 19 Jul 2014 at 10:12  
That was an education, Candance.
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When is male protagonist will be to arriving to save everyone and become King of Awesomeness and also the World?

Blandcorp 19 Jul 2014 at 10:26  
irt Fields: I see what you did there

Anyway.

Twas bryllyg, and the slythy toves
Did gyre and gymble in the wabe.
All mimsy were the borogoves;
And the mome raths outgrabe.


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Petesdiner 19 Jul 2014 at 12:28  
I agree that existential clauses (or at least the form that they often take) is primarily an abstract/blurry way of phrasing something, and therefore something to watch out for, but I'm not sure your rain/windshield example is really all that fair. For one, while the windshield phrase certainly paints a more vivid picture, it is also standard past; if you turn it is raining, which is present progressive, into standard past, it becomes it was rain (or it rained), the former which is at once, most likely, the answer to a question (as such relying on the question itself to help form the picture it paints) and an existential clause. In this case, at least, it's not necessarily holding the writer back from making the scene more 'interesting'.

Apropos the usual structure of an existential clause, another potential benefit is that it can help move certain parts of a clause around (typically, if not always, an auxiliary verb such as has or copulas such as is) and, hopefully, make things clearer. For example, depending on the complexity of the sentence and what you're going for, the sentence Elephants are in the sky might be better rephrased as There are elephants in the sky. Or, more markedly, Speculation about the incident with the flying elephants is increasing might be better rephrased as, There is increasing speculation about the incident with the flying elephants.

So yeah, again, I certainly agree that awareness of existential clauses and their effects can help a writer avoid abstract language when something more concrete is desired, but I'm wondering if the actual problem hasn't more to do with mastering the use of (evocative) action verbs in a sentence/narrative rather than the construction of said sentence/narrative.

Ps: Also, I know I'm being a stinky stickler here, but nonsense is something the diner takes great pride in getting right, and really it's brillig and not that other thing.
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How he picked the stars like eggs in a hen house.

Bethanne80 19 Jul 2014 at 12:50  
A very interesting topic! There is now another thing added to my list of Things to Look Out For.... I mean, I've added something else to my list of things to look out for.
Brenton 19 Jul 2014 at 12:53  
Huh. If nothing else, I will now notice this when I write it, and think a little about whether it really works as written. There is thankfulness being directed from me to you.
Candance 20 Jul 2014 at 05:25  
Pete, I've long held the belief that verbs drive everything in prose, and one day I aim to create a post that does justice to that concept. Teach a person to choose the most evocative verb for a statement, and smart construction builds around it with no effort. But, first they have to grasp the various evoke options so they can choose.

Brenton, a little awareness is all it really takes.
Benjaminlg 20 Jul 2014 at 13:44  
A fantastic and well-reasoned blog. Thanks Candance.
Elizakate 21 Jul 2014 at 05:53  
Great post, thank you! This is something I constantly struggle with without properly being able to explain it to myself in my mind. I am almost excited to go off and edit out all that pesky Was Verbing.


Linden 21 Jul 2014 at 09:45  
Excellent. Thank you!
Ammonite7 21 Jul 2014 at 14:17  
I've read several articles that say to avoid starting sentences with "to be" verbs: There are, There is, It is, etc. They contribute nothing to the meaning, add unnecessary words and dull the sentence. For example: "There is a bird sitting on the branch." OR, "A bird perches on the branch."

Even worse: "There was a moon shining through the trees and clouds passing overhead."

Merely removing "There was" can force a writer to make this sentence much better. I don't think I need to do so for one to imagine what I mean.

On the other hand, if what you are describing is rather dull anyway, then, there it is, sitting in the room, on the shelf, whatever.
Fields 21 Jul 2014 at 15:12  
Short version:

Quote by: Ammonite7
On the other hand, if what you are describing is rather dull anyway, then, there it is, sitting in the room, on the shelf, whatever.


Indeed, and great point. As was noted:

Quote by: Candance
Existential clause can evoke strong emotion when you use it effectively. Just make sure you know how to do that.


I think it works wonderfully in dialogue:

"I'm stuffed. Good dinner."

"Tom, that wasn't dinner. That was an experience."

(An overuse of this would be when people say that something "was awesome" or "was epic", when in fact, it wasn't.)

Long version:

I am not a good blogger, and I don't read too many. It is a personal choice.

Those that usually interest me have useful information and teach me something I didn't already know, truly unique voices, personal life experiences that I haven't had (presenting perspectives I don't normally consider), or cover subjects that the blogger truly is an expert in(on). I don't find too many blogs that fit that description, or at least the vast majority don't. I note that I don't look often enough.

My own blog is no exception to my list of reasons not to read a blog. I don't quite want to post my opinions and activities on a daily, weekly, monthly basis, so I don't.

My point is blogs are rather ordinary, and often, so are blogs about writing. The Internet is drowning in them. They're like opinions. Everyone has one, even if we don't know what the hell to do with it (*points to self*).

Which brings me to Candance's post.

The CC blog is great. It's our blog, you know? I'm happy we have it, and that writers from within our community can use it to educate, share, comfort our community and challenge writing advice and us writers. It's a great asset to CC.

I don't always find the need to post a comment on the posts as they don't always interest me (I'm already a blog snob, so it's not you CC, it's me).

Candance's post contained next to no filler, no real conversational voice like she was just chatting with a writer buddy who is going through the same struggles (a voice I sometimes use in posts, because, why not? Don't we all?). So as a blog snob who hates the sound of his own blogger voice, I really did mean it was an education.
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When is male protagonist will be to arriving to save everyone and become King of Awesomeness and also the World?

Candance 21 Jul 2014 at 15:14  
Quote by: Ammonite7
I've read several articles that say to avoid starting sentences with "to be" verbs: There are, There is, It is, etc. They contribute nothing to the meaning, add unnecessary words and dull the sentence. For example: "There is a bird sitting on the branch." OR, "A bird perches on the branch."

Someone ought to write a blog post about that....
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