Published August 31, 2023 | Version v1
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On existential and predlocative construction-functions and construction-strategies

  • 1. Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology


Linguists working on existential and predlocative clauses are often confronted with the question whether “non-core” examples such as (1) and (2) should be included in the discussion.


(1) non-core existential, English

     Here is a new pencil.


(2) non-core predlocative, English

     The dragonfly was hovering over the field.


To a substantial extent this is a terminological question, which arises because the traditional term usage has not been fully uniform. Here I propose that the distinction between (construction-)strategies and construction(-function)s made by Croft (2022) can throw light on the divergent usage. A construction-strategy is a formally defined comparative concept for a kind of construction, whereas a construction-function is a comparative concept for a construction defined in terms of meaning or discourse function.

     The term “existential construction” has been widely used for cases like English There is a new pencil on the table, where there is a special prolocative form (there) which seems to be characteristic of such clauses. But are such special forms definitional for “existential constructions” cross-linguistically?

     I will argue that the answer is that special ingredients such as English there, French il y a, or Hebrew yeš cannot be definitional for “existential construction” as a comparative concept (pace authos like McNally 2016), because different languages have very different kinds of special elements or constructional properties, but we still want to use this well-established term for these different languages (as a comparative concept). Thus, “existential construction” must be defined as a construction-function which can be expressed in all languages (Haspelmath 2022: §4: “a clause construction in which an indefinite and discourse-new nominal phrase is said to be in some location”).

     There are diverse types of construction-strategies expressing the existential function, and many languages have several. For example, English not only has there existentials but also allows (1), which lacks the element there. Likewise, “predlocative” is defined functionally, and if ‘hover’ is regarded as a posture verb, then (2) is included, because posture is merely a secondary meaning component conflated with the central meaning of locatedness.

     I will also discuss Creissels’ (2019) recent proposal to conceive of the traditional domain of existential clauses as “inverse-locational”, which is defined in a mixed way, with respect to both functional and formal properties. As the formal properties can be different in different languages, I do not regard Creissels’ proposal as a satisfactory solution to the conceptual problems he identifies.






Creissels, Denis. 2019. Inverse-locational predication in typological perspective. Italian Journal of Linguistics 31(2). 37–106.

Croft, William. 2022. Morphosyntax: Constructions of the world’s languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Haspelmath, Martin. 2022. Nonverbal clause constructions. (To appear,

McNally, Louise. 2016. Existential sentences crosslinguistically: Variations in form and meaning. Annual Review of Linguistics 2(1). 211–231. (doi:10.1146/annurev-linguistics-011415-040837)



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