Saturday, 29 October 2011

There is or there are?

The rule is quite clear...or is it? We generally use 'there is' or 'there are' to talk about the existence (or not) of something, and the general rule is that we use 'are' with plural subjects.

There is a girl from Greenland in our class.
Can you believe that there aren't any messages for me on Facebook?
There are supposed to be five of us. Who's missing?

However, in informal speech, we often use there is with plural nouns:

There's some children coming to play trick or treat tonight; have we got anything to give them?

In fact, to my ears, saying 'there are some children coming' actually sounds odd, even though it's grammatically correct!
So, could we say 'there is going to be some changes around here'? I'd say, informally, yes.

Are there any grammarians among us to refute what I've just said?

But, there's worse.

What do we do when there are multiple subjects?

There is a Korean girl, a Danish man, and an American Indian in my class.
There are a Korean girl, a Danish man, and an American Indian in my class.

Which would you use?

I know which one I would use. Using there are sounds positively awkward to my ears.

However, I would say:

There are two Korean girls, a Danish man, and an American Indian in my class.


The reason is because ellipsis is present in these case. What we really want to say is:

There is a Korean girl, there is a Danish man, and there is an American Indian ...

In other words, we use the verb that coincides with the first subject... in speaking anyway. The reason is, perhaps, we hear the words 'There are a Korean girl', and we wince because we haven't heard what is to come later. However, in writing, when we see the plural verb, we skim across, and we see that there are more subjects, so the brain accepts it.

The best way to avoid these situations is to use the plural subject first! In the case of multiple singular subjects, I'd tend to avoid ellipsis, and repeat:

There is a Korean girl...there is a Danish man...and, there is even an Indian American ...!

Any comments from the experts?



  1. Conceptually, this is so different in many other languages. This is the root of the problem.

  2. This is something I'm really aware of - that I often use 'there's' with plural nouns. This is something totally acceptable in informal spoken English. My students have yet to pick up on it in class, though I'm sure it'll happen sooner or later!

  3. It is, isn't it. The Spanish have their 'hay', the French, their 'Il y a, but we have to complicate matters, hehe ;-)

  4. Thanks for the comment, Cat. Yes, we often use it naturally, without thinking...until some 'smart' student comes up and say, 'but didn't you just say there's your notebooks...?' :-)

  5. Nice article. Something I've also thought about recently and have found myself correcting my own "mistakes". I agree that it's fine in informal spoken contexts to say "there's + plural" (but not there is + plural). With multiple subjects I'd say it's wrong in any way to say "there are an x and an x"; for me it's correct to use there is, due to what you say, ellipsis.

  6. Thanks Davy; yes, I quite agree. We'd say Here's/There's your keys, but we wouldn't say, 'Here is your keys'. Strange, if you look at it, but I guess we could argue that in informal language, more often than not, we'd abbreviate the 'is/are' .

  7. Great post! Something I've been thinking about quite a lot lately! The Ellipsis explanation does make sense...explains quite a lot...

  8. Good to see you here, Chia. Strange how we're all thinking about the same things lately... hehe :-)


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