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Sentences that express that something exists in a particular place typically follow a pattern "in (or on/at, etc.) + [place] + there is/are [something] in English. For example, we can say:

In Finland, there are a lot of lakes.

We can also move the prepositional phrase to the end of the sentence:

There are a lot of lakes in Finland.

Now in Chinese I have often seen an initial 在 zài in these sentences, but it seems that it is unnecessary and can be omitted. Consider:

芬蘭有很多湖。(1A)
在芬蘭有很多湖。(1B)

In the above example, one could argue that you can also say "Finland has a lot of lakes", but it seems to me that the Chinese version is more like "there are", as we can find other similar cases where the translation with "have" is not possible or does not work so well. For example:

On the table, there are a lot of books.
(Or: There are a lot of books on the table.)
桌子上有很多書。(2A)
在桌子上有很多書。(2B)

In the drawer, there is a lot of paper.
(There is a lot of paper in the drawer.)
抽屜裡有很多紙。(3A)
在抽屜裡有很多紙。(3B)

Here,there are a lot of people.
(There are a lot of people here.)
這裡有很多人。(4A)
在這裡有很多人。(4B)

My question is whether there is any difference between both versions. Are they equally acceptable or common? Is there any nuance in meaning? Might the 在 version be a form of "translationese", with English grammar creeping in?

4 Answers 4

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To my ear, (1b) sounds awkward. I’m writing this mostly to try to make sense of why it sounds awkward for myself.

(1) a. 芬蘭有很多湖。
    b. ?在芬蘭有很多湖。

This DigMandarin article on existential sentences simply asserts that “在” cannot be used like this. However, I think there is a more nuanced explanation. C.-T. James Huang, in "Existential Sentences in Chinese and (In)definiteness", claims that all existential sentences in Chinese have this form.

(NP)… V … NP …(XP)

The first position can be occupied by a locative noun phrase like “這裡” or by a noun phrase representing a possessor, but in either case, there is an optional subject at the start of the sentence. Theoretically, there can be a locative prepositional phrase at any position in the sentence.

(2) ?有很多湖在芬蘭。

This still sounds a little awkward to me. But when I think about moving the prepositional phrase to the beginning of the sentence, I feel a strong need to insert a subject.

(3) 在芬蘭,山裡有很多湖。

On the other hand, I don’t feel the same need in this sentence.

(4) 在桌上有很多書。

What I believe happens when I hear (1b) is that, after I hear the prepositional phrase “在芬蘭”, I’m anticipating a noun phrase that will serve as the subject of the sentence. There is none, so I assume that the sentence has an implied subject. At the end of the sentence, I’m left wondering, “who/what has a lot of lakes in Finland?”

The difference in (4) is that, although there is no stated subject, it is easy to imagine the implied subject being the speaker. “On the table, (I) have a lot of books.”

Huang discusses how there’s an interaction between whether an existential sentence has a subject or not and the “definiteness” of the object that’s allowed. Typically, the object of an existential sentence needs to be indefinite, but in existential 有-sentences that have subjects, “syntactically definite but semantically indefinite” objects are allowed.

I believe something like this is what’s going on here. Huang says that “definites” include “NPs with quantifiers like ‘most.’” If “很多湖” is definite, then a sentence like (1a) must have a subject, so we are not allowed to use the prepositional phrase “在芬蘭” instead of the noun phrase “芬蘭”.

Huang also discusses a type of existential sentence where the verb is a “locational verb.” These sentences must always have locative noun phrases in the subject position, and they cannot be prepositional phrases. The exception is if there is an implied agent. For example, (5a) and (5b) are acceptable, but (5c) is not.

(5) a. 墙上挂着一顶帽子。
    b. (我)在墙上挂了一顶帽子。
    c. *在墙上挂着一顶帽子

I think this is perhaps not very related to what’s going on with (1b), but it just goes to show that there’s no simple rule for whether existential sentences with 在 are well-formed or not.

Lastly, in my view, the existential use of “有” functions very similarly to the English "to have," except that the subject is optional in Chinese but required in English. Because of this, when there isn't a subject, English switches to "there are." The parallel is clearer in languages like French, where "avoir" (to have) can be an impersonal verb. Here's an example.

(6) a. 有  人。
       has people
    b. Il y     a   des  gens.
       it there has some people

Here are my translations of the sentences you gave as examples of when "to have" doesn't work well, and hopefully they're helpful for you.

(7) a. 桌子上有很多書。
       'The place on the table has a lot of books.'

    b. 抽屜里有很多紙。
       'The place inside the drawer has a lot of paper.'

    c. 這裡有很多人。
       'This place has a lot of people.'
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  • Very useful links and information, thanks. The comparison with French is very interesting. In my native language Spanish, 'hay' ('there is') and 'tiene' ('has got') feel like quite different words to present-day speakers, but it turns out that "hay" is etymologically like "il y a" in French ("ha" + the obsolete pronoun "y"). And in colloquial Brazilian Portuguese the word 'tem' ('has got') is nowadays used for existence too (instead of the traditional 'há'). It seems that this overlap between the concepts of existence and possession can appear in very different languages. Sep 26, 2023 at 10:36
  • I feel I'm lacking some essential background to be able to understand this. I had a quick look at the Huang reference and was mystified early on. I'm guessing NP is a noun phrase. What's an XP? Sep 27, 2023 at 9:07
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    @goPlayerJuggler I don’t have a formal linguistics background either, but reading the examples in Huang helped me understand! He says “the phrase in position 4 is an expression of predication, generally a descriptive clause or phrase, semantically associated with the NP in position 3.” For example, in ”有一个人很喜欢你,” position 4 is filled by “很喜欢你”. In “我有一本书很有趣”, position 4 is filled by “很有趣”. Sep 27, 2023 at 22:57
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You are correct. I consider the 4 sentences below to be equally acceptable, the sole difference is the style of writing/speaking.

  1. 芬蘭有很多的湖。

  2. 在芬蘭有很多的湖。

  3. 在芬蘭, 那裡有很多的湖。

  4. 芬蘭, 在那裡有很多的湖。

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    This matches my impression that the two ways of forming such sentences are equivalent, at least to many or most native speakers. The other answer by Tec99 also confirms this. I've accepted the other answer because it gives some grammatical analysis and very interesting references, but this basic confirmation of actual usage is also very useful to me. Sep 26, 2023 at 10:43
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I think that all the (xB) sentences have stressed on the subject (I mean 主语).

For example, (1B)“在芬兰有很多的湖” have emphasized on 芬兰, means that the country Finland that have lots of lake, while the (1A) stressed more on the fact that Finland have lots of lake. But actually this difference is often too small to be noticed, only practical in some Chinese exams.

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Form A and Form B are different, at least in Chinese.

For example, 1A means "Finland has a lot of lakes." Finland is the subject. 1B says "There are a lot of lakes in Finland." Finland is just a place where you put a lot of lakes.

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