31

It seems I put a stick in the anthill at ELL.

Bounty assigned by outside party, two lengthy, reference-citing answers, one "-1" (awarded the bounty), one "-2", two others scored "0" and "-2" respectively, the answers suggesting one or the other is correct, 73 comments and no consensus so far - and me, as the asker, lost without a clue what to think of the answers anymore - this is no longer "Learners' Level" question, so I thought I'd bring it here and hear what the experts have to say.


Original question:

Plurality of verb depending on plurality of list elements

An edit was suggested to my sentence.

There was were an orange, some grapes, two apples and a small pile of cherries on the plate.

In my native language plurality of the verb always follows plurality of the first element on the list. There were an orange,... sounds awkward to me, no matter what follows up. My simple solution was reordering:

There were some grapes, an orange, two apples and a small pile of cherries on the plate.

But that's not the first time I faced this situation and I'd like to know what the rules of grammar say about that - was my editor overzealous or am I trying to copy rules of my language that don't apply in English?


Someone linked a related question for negatives, where the situation is more clear-cut ("There is no..."). Same applies to connection with "or" apparently, per accepted answer there. Still, nothing for "and".

It seems there is a consensus that in that if the verb goes after the list, it will be plural.

an orange, some grapes, two apples and a small pile of cherries were on the plate.

There doesn't seem to be clear consensus for:

On the plate { was | were } an orange, some grapes, two apples and a small pile of cherries

Adding more to the confusion is the abbreviated form: "There's"

One last note. In North America, at least, there is a widespread use of using a singular form like "there is" and "there was", without regard for the subject item or items, and this "there is" is often shortened to "there's":

There's three apples on the table!

Could you please clarify this mess?

  • 5
    Googling, we get around 50 hits for "there's a bat and a ball", around 20 for "there is a bat and a ball", and only 6 for "there are a bat and a ball". Draw your own conclusions. – Peter Shor Dec 8 '13 at 3:02
  • I just added my additional findings to the question at ELL. It wasn't intended to be the definitive answer, but I hope that you should find the information useful. ell.stackexchange.com/a/14127/3281 – Damkerng T. Dec 8 '13 at 8:12
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    @PeterShor google.com/#q=%22there%27s+all+sorts+of+folks%22 – Kris Dec 8 '13 at 8:36
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    Hmm ... How come your chosen answer on this page doesn't even vaguely answer your question old bean? It would be really good if you could choose an answer that addresses the question, because other questions on this site asking related questions are getting closed and linked to this one... – Araucaria Jul 22 '15 at 22:20
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    I think bringing "two-hundred dollars" into the discussion just confuses the matter, since even in straight-forward sentences, that often sounds better with a singular verb: "Two hundred dollars is a lot of money for a pair of shoes." ("Two hundred dollars are a lot of money"? I think not!) – Evelyn Elwell Uyemura Dec 26 '16 at 16:09
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‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’ deals with this pragmatically, as with much else:

Existential there couples with either singular or plural verbs (there is / there are, according to the following noun phrase) . . . This formal agreement is strictly maintained in academic writing. But in narrative and everyday writing, there is and especially there’s is found even with plural nouns . . . In conversation the combination of there’s with a plural noun is in fact more common than there are, according to the 'Longman Grammar' . . . Negative statements also seem to attract there’s . . . When a compound subject follows, there’s rather than there are is selected . . .

In such cases both formal and proximity agreement help to select the singular verb. 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.

  • 1
    After fighting tooth and nail on ELL, it turns out you've got the reference I've needed all along. I've been trying to prove this to no avail, and in fact was headed here to ask the very same question until I'd stumbled upon your answer. +1 to you, sir. Not that you need it, but perhaps you could claim the 2nd bounty ;) – Giambattista Dec 9 '13 at 1:06
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    ... . . . serving the needs of the ongoing discourse rather than the grammar of the sentence. What an epitaph that would make! – Edwin Ashworth May 9 '14 at 8:22
  • @Giambattista it's been a long time since the bounties were awarded, and you are no longer a regular member but despite that, I still don't understand why you were so enthusiastic for this citation especially : But in narrative and everyday writing, there is and especially there’s is found even with plural nouns . . . which clearly contradicted your answer on ELL which currently stands at -5. – Mari-Lou A Dec 27 '16 at 10:18
  • @Mari-LouA: 1) I didn't award, nor declare any bounty. 2) I found the concept of "is followed by a list" being roughly equivalent to elbows on table, in terms of seriousness of violation of grammar rules to be quite evocative, pointing roughly where and when should I care to keep the verb agree, and when people would find it weird that I care. – SF. Dec 27 '16 at 17:20
  • @SF. The question on ELL attracted two bounties, one of the bounties was given to Giambattista, and the 2nd to Damkerng T. (a much better answer) by snailplane. OK, sorry, the first bounty was set up by a different user, and it was not awarded by you. But it is odd that you should accept Barrie England's answer and Giambattista's. They're not saying the same thing. – Mari-Lou A Dec 27 '16 at 17:29
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+50

Yes, you should trust your ear. :)

This topic comes up a lot. Your question involves an existential construction.

It is safest (imo) to consider that the dummy pronoun "there" to be the grammatical subject. There are syntactic tests that can be used to sorta figure out the grammatical subject. Both the 1985 reference grammar by Quirk et al., A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, and the 2002 reference grammar by Huddleston and Pullum, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, basically consider that "there" is the grammatical subject.

In Quirk et al., page 1405, in section "The status of existential there as subject", it has:

18.46 The there of existential sentences differs from there as an introductory adverb in lacking stress, in carrying none of the locative meaning of the place-adjunct there, and in behaving in most ways like the subject of the clause, doubtless reflecting the structural dislocation from the basic clause types:

(i) It often determines concord, governing a singular form of the verb (cf 10.34 ff) even when the following 'notional subject' is plural:

  • There's some people in the waiting room. < informal >

occurs alongside:

  • There are some people in the waiting room.

(ii) It can act as subject in yes--no and tag questions:

  • Is there any more soup? There's nothing wrong, is there?

(iii) It can act as subject in infinitive and -ing clauses:

  • I don't want there to be any misunderstanding.

  • He was disappointed at there being so little to do.

  • There having been trouble over this in the past, I wanted to treat the matter cautiously.

Huddleston and Pullum et al. go into this in even more depth, in their section "Evidence that subject function is uniquely filled by dummy it and there" on pages 241-3.

I discussed the above because there are numerous, er, grammatical sources out there that get this wrong.

So, if we consider that the "there" is the subject, then that which is to the right-hand-side (RHS) of the BE verb is NOT the grammatical subject. That RHS has been called a whole bunch of stuff, such as "true subject", "notional subject", "displaced subject", etc. So, there is no such thing as a grammatical rule of subject-verb agreement between the BE verb and the RHS -- because the RHS is not the grammatical subject.

When teachers and "pop grammarians" and pedants say that there must be "subject-verb" agreement between the BE verb and the RHS, they are wrong. It is a bogus rule. It is like the other bogus rules like: "You must not start a sentence with a conjunction", "You must not split an infinitive", "You must not strand a preposition", "You must not use a relative 'that' to refer to a human", etc.

I've seen a lot of bad guidance, er, "rules" getting passed around as to the pseudo-subject/verb agreement. Here's one:

"there is" + < plural noun phrase > is indeed nonstandard . . . but "there's" + < plural noun phrase > should really be characterized, in current English, as merely informal/colloquial, rather than nonstandard.

Let's address this part:

"there is" + < plural noun phrase > is indeed nonstandard

for that evaluation is dubious, obviously. One can easily create contexts and examples to disprove that evaluation. For example, using the plural noun phrase "two hundred dollars",

  • There is two hundred dollars in the man's wallet.

I'd think it'll be quite easy to create a context where that example sentence is acceptable.

Many instructors teach that the verb should be plural or singular depending on what that verb would be in a corresponding sentence where the RHS is the subject. Using the above example:

  • Two hundred dollars is in the man's wallet.

is acceptable and grammatical. (That example uses a subject that is a measure phrase, and this issue is discussed in Huddleston and Pullum et al., CGEL, section "(a) Measure phrases", page 504.)

And so, an existential construction corresponding to that could then be:

  • There is two hundred dollars in the man's wallet.

That sounds fine to me.

When the RHS includes a coordination of noun phrases, things can get confusing. Some usage guides and usage commentators prefer that the BE verb agree with the closest noun phrase for that situation. E.g.

  • There is one fat dog and two skinny cats in the box.

  • There are two skinny cats and one fat dog in the box.

and some still want the plural verb even when the first noun phrase is singular,

  • There are one fat dog and two skinny cats in the box.

Of course, if this is dirtied up with an "or" or "nor" coordination, then existential constructions can really clash with their corresponding versions where the RHS is the subject. E.g.,

  • (Either) One fat dog or two skinny cats are in the box that's sinking in the pond.

  • There are (either) one fat dog or two skinny cats in the box that's sinking in the pond. (ugh)

  • There is (either) one fat dog or two skinny cats in the box that's sinking in the pond.

.

Context is king. For instance,

I come from a small family. There is grandpa, mother, my big sister, me.

Hopefully an "editor" won't dare to mark that use of "There is" -- if the editor did, then that's an instant STET and a request for a different editor.

.

This post is getting long. Let me end it with this following bit of info.

A decent usage dictionary, such as MWDEU or MWCDEU, can provide useful info as to standard usage of the existential construction. In my Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage, entry "there is, there are", on pages 732-3, this is the concluding paragraph:

Jespersen notes that the invariable singular occurs mostly in the colloquial style--speech and speechlike prose--and is generally avoided in the literary style. That observation accords with our evidence. In the more complex constructions, you are best guided by your own sense of what sounds right in the particular context to avoid awkwardness and maintain the smooth flow of the sentence.

Their last sentence basically says it pretty well, imo.

  • 3
    Sorry, but in expletive constructions, it may well be true that linguists consider there (and here, it, etc.) to be a dummy subject(s), but they are not the grammatical subject. Existential clauses are not subjects. What action is there taking (note: I know it's copular)? In what way does there exist? How is there modified. It's just pointing to something else. – Giambattista Dec 9 '13 at 1:36
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    This is a good answer, but I think you've taken Arnold Zwicky's quote ('"there is' + NPpl is indeed nonstandard") out of context. I don't believe it was intended as guidance or as a fully generalized rule so much as a characterization of "There is way too many fricking ... cooks in the kitchen". – snailcar Dec 9 '13 at 2:02
  • I still have trouble accepting there as a subject governing a singular verb as a blanket solution, though I realise it fulfills many of the criteria. But sentences like “There is $200 in his pocket” and—even more so—“$200 is in his pocket” remain ungrammatical to me, even colloquially. And of course, if you accept “$200” as a measure phrase that takes a singular verb, I presume you would also have it be replaceable with a singular pronoun it? “Where is the $200?” — “It is in his pocket”. Is that actually grammatical to you? To me, measure override with existential be is jarring as hell. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 21 '15 at 20:18
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    @JanusBahsJacquet Yes, it sounds fine to me. :) . . . Consider: A: "I brought you the two hundred dollars that I owed you." Guy 'B' looks at 'A's hands, and sees that they are empty. B: "Well, where is it?" A: "It is in my pocket. I'll give it to you as soon as you write me a receipt." – F.E. Jul 21 '15 at 20:34
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    @JanusBahsJacquet Also, many grammar books actually decompose the existential into a so-called corresponding canonical word order clause in a similar way: "There is two hundred dollars in his pocket" --> "Two hundred dollars is in his pocket". I've merely used one of their tools in a similar way. – F.E. Jul 21 '15 at 20:38
1

There is/are, and it is/are are expletive sentences, which tend to be wordier and possibly confusing in subject-verb agreement.

Although the consensus of opinion is that the be verb should match the number of the subject, it sounds more natural (if you must write an expletive sentence) if the verb agrees in number with the first item in the list.

There is an apple, three oranges, and some grapes on the table. There are some grapes, an apple and three oranges on the table.

If that is too difficult to accept, avoid starting the sentence with There is/are.

They are forms that are wordier than necessary. The forms are wordier than necessary.

  • 1
    First, it's not possible to always avoid expletive constructions; it's not always a matter of whether you've got to. Second, the subject of the sentence is an orange, some grapes, two apples and a small pile of cherries, which is clearly plural (without question, regardless of how you arrange the list) There were an orange, some grapes, two apples, and a small pile of cherries on the plate; An orange, some grapes, two apples and a small pile of cherries were on the plate; One the plate were an orange, some grapes, two apples and a small pile of cherries. What's the difference here? – Giambattista Dec 9 '13 at 1:16
  • Perhaps I don't understand what you mean; are you suggesting that the singular is correct informally because it sounds better? And are you also saying that it's technically correct to use the plural formally? My issue with your comment is that when I reconstruct the sentence without there, the subject does not change. Do you think my 1st and 3rd examples above are wrong and that the 2nd is correct? I was trying to point out that the subject is plural regardless of how it is arranged. In the 1st the plural verb is followed by a singular noun; in the 3rd, a singular noun precedes the plural. – Giambattista Dec 9 '13 at 3:49
  • My advice: If it is too difficult to accept, just use "there are" with lists. It's close enough to grammatical that very few people will even notice that it's wrong. – Peter Shor Sep 10 '15 at 15:35
0

I generally consider 'there' to be a functional subject anticipating the notional subject for the obvious purpose of accessing the convenience of the most concise existential syntax. As such, I believe it should always agree with the notional subject. I suggest that the 'first item' arguments mostly come down to an ellipsis of repeated instances of 'there + be' as one contributor above has already commented, and therefore do validate use of the singular 'is/was'. Further, I would argue that ellipsis is also the culprit with phrases of measurement such as 'two hundred dollars' as they often carry the subtext 'the amount of', also validating the singular choice, as do explicit examples employed a framing device such as 'a few (of)' and 'a couple(of)'.

0

The in-between stuff amounts to an afterthought, the sentence can be reordered to show that, and when read aloud still sounds OK:

There was an orange on the plate, some grapes, two apples and a small pile of cherries.

The preposition 'on' caries over, even with that rambling order it's still clear that all of the fruit sits on the same plate. Omitting "there" and leading with the preposition "on" also works:

On the plate was an orange, some grapes, two apples and a small pile of cherries.

As does:

An orange was on the plate, some grapes, two apples and a small pile of cherries.

protected by tchrist Dec 26 '16 at 16:12

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