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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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