The following is an answer post by the venerable F.E., originally posted in relation to this question here.
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 >
- 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.
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.