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I was interested in the following sentence which appeared in an article titled “HORSE MARKET" in The New York Times (Dec. 4, 1861).

There is several first-class draught horses in market, held at $150@$175 each; very slow sales.

Can someone clarify if the fragment "There is several first-class draught horses in market" is ungrammatical, as I think it is?

As the sentence is dated on 1861, perhaps the grammatical rules governing this form are changed meantime. Are they?

However, nowadays, I would reword "is" with "are", but I'm not sure on this correction because the presence of the word "several" confuses me.

(Apologize in advanced if the question is not good for this site. If so, please delete it. Thank you.)

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3 Answers 3

You are correct in your assumption that the sentence is grammatically incorrect by accepted standards of modern English. If you reduce the sentence to its basic structure (noun, linking verb, predicate nominative), there remains the complete sentence, "there is horses." Obviously this does not comprise correct subject/verb agreement. I see how the word several could be confusing, but in this case it is an adjective describing how many horses there are.

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It should be stated more clearly that while "there is + [plural]" is not part of Standard English (yet), it is perfectly grammatical, which is why people use it in the first place. It is not a one-off error, a slip of the tongue, or a genuine mistake by a non-native speaker; much rather it's a construction millions of native speakers all over the word consciously use every day. It certainly isn't the highest register, but "ungrammatical" is a misnomer. –  RegDwigнt Jun 6 '12 at 22:04
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I'm afraid I wasn't very careful with my answer. "There" is not the subject of the sentence and "horses" is not the predicate nominative. Instead, "horses" is the subject while the predicate nominative is actually the prepositional phrase, "in the market". Using "is" as the verb, however, still breaks subject-verb agreement because "horses" is plural. –  dusktreader Jun 6 '12 at 22:27
    
Hello dusktreader, it is intersting what you said just now! Why don't you improve your answer? You can do this every time you think it is necessary. –  Xavier Hernández Balcázar Jun 6 '12 at 22:50
    
... and be not afraid. Everyone can do errors, even RegDwight. –  Xavier Hernández Balcázar Jun 6 '12 at 22:54

I agree with dusktreader that this is not common in contemporary English. But I think the phrase "there is" is used statively here, many other Indo-European languages have certain constructs where a stative is used, or often implied. It means something like the following;

There is (a situation in which) several draught-horses...

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A careful writer would today begin that particular sentence with There are . . . However, there is is certainly found before plural noun phrases, particularly in speech. As ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’ concludes its article on there:

These various uses of there’s with plural (or notionally plural) noun phrases show how the structure is working its way into the standard. It seems to be evolving into a fixed phrase, rather like the French C’est . . . serving the needs of the ongoing discourse rather than the grammar of the sentence.

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