Monday, May 25, 2015

Verb Review #9: There Is / There Are

A reader asks about the use of “there is” and “there are”:

I am writing to express my puzzlement over whether to use “there is” or “there are”. When I was reading a script, I came across [this] sentence: “In his arms there are a whole bunch of corn husks.” Should it not be “there is”?

Plenty of native speakers experience a sense of puzzlement when it comes to “there is” and “there are.”

The grammar is clear. A singular subject takes a singular verb. Therefore, “There is” should be used to introduce a singular noun and “There are” should introduce a plural noun:

There is a long line at the checkout counter.
There are twenty-five students in this class.

In sentences like these, the word there is used as a sentence opener. The true subject comes after the verb. This construction is known variously as “a delayed subject,” “an expletive construction,” and “a dummy subject.”

Here are the sentences rewritten to put the subjects at the beginning:

A long line is at the checkout counter.
Twenty-five students are in this class.

English speakers are not accustomed to having to think ahead when constructing a spoken sentence. They are also fond of reducing words to simpler forms. There’s seems to have become the same kind of reduction for “there are” as gonna for “going to” and gimme for “give me.”

“There is” contracts to there’s, but “There are” has no easy-to-pronounce contraction.

There’re for “there are” may be pronounceable for some speakers, but not for all. And, apart from dialogue, it should never be necessary to write “there’re.”

Perhaps the awkward pronunciation of “there’re” is one reason so many speakers take the path of least resistance and open sentences with There’s, without regard to the grammatical number of the true subject.

The example in the reader’s question sounds like a stage direction: “In his arms there are a whole bunch of corn husks.” It is a badly written sentence on two counts:

1. The verb should be is and not are because the true subject is singular: bunch.

2. The sentence begins with the phrase “in his arms.” An additional sentence opener is not required: “In his arms is a whole bunch of corn husks.”

If the sentence is a stage direction, a more straightforward way to express the thought might be “He is carrying an armload of corn husks.”

There’s as a sentence opener without regard to the true subject is a feature of colloquial spoken English that no amount of chiding will eliminate.

Formal speech is another matter. News announcers, advertisers, and other professionals who address large audiences have a responsibility to observe grammatical agreement when opening a sentence with there.

In written English, sentences that begin with there is or there are can easily be edited to observe agreement. In most cases, such sentences usually benefit from being rewritten to put the true subject first.

Related post: The Delayed Subject with “There”

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