In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Existential

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Collected Works
  • Corpus Studies
  • Functionalist Analyses
  • The Semantics of Existential Clauses
  • The Existential Coda
  • Existentials and Amount Relatives
  • Modal Existential Constructions

Linguistics Existential
Louise McNally
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 March 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 March 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0070


Many languages use specialized clause structures, known as existential sentences or existential constructions, the main function of which is to express a proposition about the existence or presence of someone or something. Existential constructions have been discussed in the syntax literature because they often manifest noncanonical agreement, case marking, and word order. These constructions have attracted attention in the semantics and pragmatics literature because of the restrictions on definite and quantificational determiners in the so-called existential pivot nominal (the nominal that describes the entity whose existence/presence is asserted or denied in a declarative existential), the restrictions on the so-called coda predicate that appears in the construction in some languages (e.g., “sick” in “There were several people sick”), and their special information structural properties. Existentials often constitute an extension or specialization of expletive, copular, inversion, possessive, or locative constructions, although there is considerable cross-linguistic variation in the details. This article includes references on syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic aspects of the constructions, as well as selected references on specific languages. Many references address more than one aspect of existentials; the classification has been made according to the main focus of the reference or aspect that most distinguishes it from other references in this article. Acquisition/processing studies are not included, nor are, in general, references to the vast related literature on more general aspects of expletive subjects/topics, unaccusativity, or subject inversion.

General Overviews and Collected Works

Few general works or collections are devoted specifically to existentials. Freeze 2001 presents a very brief overview that makes reference to about thirty languages. Zeshan and Perniss 2008, like Freeze, adopts a typological approach but focuses specifically on sign languages. McNally 2016 reviews a variety of syntactic and semantic analyses that have been proposed for existentials and offers examples of different languages in which they are attested, effectively arguing against the universalist view in Freeze 2001. The papers in Bentley, et al. 2013 largely focus on micro-variation in existentials across the Romance language family from a formal syntactic and semantic perspective. Reuland and ter Meulen 1989, although not limited to existentials, contains enough classic papers on the topic to merit special mention. The papers in Ramaglia and Frascarelli 2020 cover a variety of languages and topics. Finally, Ziv 1982, although focused on Hebrew, is of interest in this context because it discusses the general question of how to identify an existential construction.

  • Bentley, Delia, Francesco Maria Ciconte, and Silvio Cruschina, eds. 2013. Special issue: Existential constructions in crosslinguistic perspective. Italian Journal of Linguistics/Rivista di Linguistica 25.1.

    Contains three articles on Romance, including one on a particular emphasis on variation within Italian dialects, one on Swahili, and one that presents a typological study of negated existentials with additional documentary materials available.

  • Freeze, Ray. 2001. Existential constructions. In Language typology and language universals. Vol. 2. Edited by Martin Haspelmath, Ekkehard König, Wulf Oesterreicher, and Wolfgang Raible, 941–953. Berlin and New York: De Gruyter.

    Focuses on the structure of existentials. Starts from the hypothesis that all existentials are a subtype of locative construction, developed in Freeze 1992 (cited under Comparisons with Related Constructions: Locative and Possessive Constructions) and sketches a Government and Binding theory–based analysis for a variety of examples.

  • McNally, Louise. 2016. Existential sentences cross-linguistically: Variations in form and meaning. Annual Review of Linguistics 2:211–231.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-linguistics-011415-040837

    Provides an overview of the variation in morphosyntactic structures that are recruited for existential sentences across languages and connects that variation to variation in their compositional semantics. Pragmatic and information structural variation is also discussed.

  • Ramaglia, Francesca, and Mara Frascarelli, eds. 2020. Special issue: Copular constructions, existentials and related phenomena. The Linguistic Review 37.2.

    Contains five articles plus an introduction by the editors. Topics include the syntax of the expletive there, existential and cleft constructions in Italian, and existential and locative constructions in Mandarin. Bassaganyas-Bars and McNally 2020 (cited under the Definiteness Effect) also appears here.

  • Reuland, Eric, and Alice G. B. ter Meulen, eds. 1989. The representation of (in)definiteness. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Collection of papers on the definiteness effect in a variety of constructions and languages, although with special attention to existentials. Includes both syntactic and semantic analyses, as well as discussion of data in Chamorro, Chinese, Dutch, English, and Lakhota.

  • Zeshan, Ulrike, and Pamela Perniss, eds. 2008. Possessive and existential constructions in sign languages. Nijmegen, The Netherlands: Ishara.

    Presents the results of a typological survey of twenty-seven sign languages from all over the world, with ten chapters devoted to detailed studies of individual languages: Adamorobe (Ghana), American, Austrian, Catalan, Flemish, Japanese, Jordanian, Ugandan, Venezuelan, and Kata Kolok (Bali) sign languages.

  • Ziv, Yael. 1982. On so-called “existentials”: A typological problem. Lingua 56.3–4: 261–281.

    DOI: 10.1016/0024-3841(82)90013-4

    Discusses the difficulties involved in deciding whether Hebrew yeš/eyn sentences are existentials. The Hebrew data serve as a point of departure for a general reflection on the characteristic properties of existentials.

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