Verb Review #9: There Is / There Are

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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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5 thoughts on “Verb Review #9: There Is / There Are”

  1. To me, the question is whether “a whole bunch of corn husks” is singular or plural. Is it singular, just one bunch, or plural, many corn husks?

    In his arms there is a bundle of corn husks.

    In his arms there are many corn husks.

  2. Plaudits to you for refraining from calling this the “expletive there”, which it emphatically is not, even though a whole lot of (let us say, sophomore) editors (in the USA – I haven’t noticed it elsewhere) have started erroneously applying that term to this construction.

    The incorrect “expletive” terminology for this construction seems to have arisen and entrenched itself out of ignorance and confusion about what the “expletive there” actually is, followed by the all-too-common self-affirming echo-chamber effect of web forums.

    Here are two examples of the “expletive there”: “There, there, don’t fret.” “There, that should should fix it.” This is very different from using “there” as an opener in sentence inversion.

  3. This article is primarily about pitfalls with subject-number agreement when using the “opener there” inverted sentence.

    However, I disagree with the implied favouring of the “straightforward” over the inverted forms. The “there is /are” sentence construction is in general better “idiomatic” English, and this is certainly how it is taught at all levels to EFL (ESOL) learners.

    In the examples with the verb carry, the “there is / are” forms are more idiomatic than the “straightforward” forms, even if the latter are also grammatically correct; but it is particularly important to grasp the idiomatic aspect with the verb “to be”. Compare: There is a chance of rain this afternoon. A chance of rain is this afternoon. (Grammatically correct but idiomatically a big no-no.) Or here: There’s half a mango in the fridge for you. / Half a mango is in the fridge for you. (Easy to spot the unidiomatic usage.)

  4. Meh. I don’t know. After some thought, I think this is an issue of nuance, the difference between “a bunch” and “a whole bunch.” The former seems to me to imply a contained, somewhat finite/countable amount, like a bunch of flowers, something actually bunched together. The latter seems to me to imply something more scattered, haphazard, indefinable or uncountable, not necessarily bunched together.
    For example, “There’s a bunch of crumbs on the table.” To me, that means a small contingency of crumbs, maybe limited to one small area, “bunched” together in location. However, “There are a whole bunch of crumbs on the table” to me sounds like a not-immediately-countable number of crumbs scattered all over the table.
    “There is a bunch of corn husks” implies (to me) that they are tied or gathered together in some way, to represent an actual bunch; versus “there are a whole bunch of corn husks,” (“there are a whole bunch of THEM,” plural), meaning kind of random, like they are just spilling out all over the place, not contained, not tied into a bunch or bunches.
    I guess you could say there is a bunch of reasons (or maybe there are a whole bunch of them) that I don’t like that corn-husk sentence, and the rule that since “bunch” is singular it should be “there is.” But “a whole bunch of” is just another way of saying “a lot of,” and “a lot” is also singular, yet you can say “a lot of _____ are…” or “there’s a lot of _____”). Alternatively, I could say “There’s a whole bunch of reasons…,” in which case I guess I would be correct, but still sounding lazy. So either way sounds OK to me. I am going to be one of those lazy, non-chided people who goes with “there’s,” in most cases, but at times will say “there are,” even in cases of a bunch (or “lot”) of things.

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