My students — Danish high school, year 13 — have to identify and explain mistakes in sentences. I have corrected so many, I cannot find the problem in this one:

There are many Danes who speak English.

Am I losing my mind?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Jan 28, 2018 at 23:17

7 Answers 7


Yes, you probably are losing your mind. :)

I say that (in jest!) because there is no grammatical or spelling mistake in this sentence:

There are many Danes who speak English.

Depending on the writing assignment, they may wish it rewritten for any number of reasons, but the spelling and grammar are still ok.

They might conceivably want something like these:

  • Many Danes speak English.
  • There are many Danes who speak English well.
  • Most young Danes speak English well.
  • Most young Danes today have quite good English.

But those are all just elaborating and rewriting to emphasize different aspects of the thought they wish to convey. They are no better in terms of grammar or spelling than your original.

John Lawler in comments points out two possible things they might be thinking are wrong.

The use of many instead of a lot of is a register difference, but could only be considered ungrammatical by someone who believed that many and much are pure negative polarity items. They do display some negative preferences but they can certainly occur outside a negative context, and often do.

So one is that many is of a different, less casual register than a lot of.

  • There are a lot of Danes who speak English.
  • A lot of Danes speak English.

Those are more casual than the original, but mean the same thing.

The other issue John raises is that they might be thinking that many is automatically limited to negative contexts only, such as:

  • Not many Danes speak English.
  • There aren’t many Danes who speak in English.

However many isn’t so limited. It may also not be true. :)

There are places where many can only be used as a negative polarity item, but this is not one of them. See Professor Lawler’s NPI cheat-sheet.

If you wanted a version of your original that did have an error in grammar or spelling, then any of these would do:

  • *There are many Danes who speaks English.
  • *There is many Danes who speaks English.
  • *There are many danes who speak english.

One thing that would not be an error is the who. You can say who there just like you can say that (some people might even try to say which), but that doesn’t change anything.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Jan 28, 2018 at 23:17

In my school days I was told that starting a sentence There are is to be avoided at considerable cost. This was backed up with some decent examples for which there were good alternatives. Like many "rules" of grammar and writing taught in school this one oversimplified. There are many cases when there is/are is a good way to start a sentence, and avoid a convoluted structure.

Perhaps this is the part of the sentence the question writer takes issue with and they'd prefer many Danes speak English. To my mind this simpler version has a subtly different meaning: many can refer to both quantity and proportion; there are many... is weighted towards quantity, but many... seems to carry a note of proportion. This would have different implications if you were trying to find an English speaker.


more power to your English-teaching elbow! It's a job I've done myself on occasion, so I know how difficult it can be.

As a speaker of Standard Scottish English and also a former UN English translator, I can say that "that" instead of "who" is rather more common in Scottish speech than in RP English or normal AmEng. "Which" is necessarily inanimate, as has been pointed out, whereas "that" in careful writing leans toward the inanimate and the non-physical - but "that" is used by some speakers as an all-purpose relative pronoun just one step up from omitting the relative pronoun entirely.

In ordinary life situations, we can and do dispense with the relative pronoun: "The man I saw last Wednesday" is a perfectly OK statement in speech, though in careful writing you might want a relative pronoun.

However, you then have to decide whether the man is a "who" or a "whom" - and native speakers may analyse it differently, because native speakers do not take Fowler for gospel even if they have read his work. So, the man is "whom" if we think of him as the object of our seeing; but he may also be analysed as "who" for simplicity, ignorance of or disbelief in Fowler, and let's not get into anything more esoteric in the study of linguistics. "That", as we Scots are more likely than other native English speakers to say, carries the process of simplification further, just one step above not saying anything at all.

With succeeding generations of native speakers analysing the language differently as they learn it, the movement is definitely towards simplification - in other words, we are hearing "whom" less and less.

To return to your question: the basic form of that statement is "Many Danes speak English". "There are many Danes who speak English" uses a common feature of English which Chomsky calls extrapolation. To the native speaker of English, it would actually be the preferred form, especially in a context where we are adding something to it, a concessive, say: "There are many Danes who speak English, but very few who are truly bilingual" - or some other piece of information - "There are many Danes who speak English well, and in general less sloppily than even educated native speakers of the language."

I hope that helped. English native speakers are so often monoglots that they have no idea just how much effort goes into learning another language, and they persist in that obnoxious attitude that if Johnny Foreigner doesn't speak English, all you have to do is shout at him even louder. I apologize for them, but I am also very angry with them, because it is that attitude that has given us Brexit, which my country - Scotland - voted against by 62:38.

OK, enough with the off-topic political stuff, good luck explaining the linguistics to your year 13s!

  • Please clarify your first paragraph. Who are you addressing when stating "more power to your English-teaching elbow!"? - the questioner or a previous answer? (Please bear in mind that the sequence of answers on the page can change as they are voted up/down.)
    – TrevorD
    Jan 9, 2018 at 19:06
  • @TrevorD I think as the OP opens with My students ... it's probable Edward is referring to that Jan 10, 2018 at 2:53
  • Similarly in Australia, "that" is common. Jan 10, 2018 at 23:50
  • 1
    "More power to your elbow" is a British idiom meaning "good for you" and "good luck to you."
    – Jonathan
    Jan 11, 2018 at 18:25
  • The paragraph on extrapolation was eye-opening. "There are many Danes who speak English, but very few who are truly bilingual" sentence sounds just a little strange with anything except "who". I wouldn't have expected that. Jan 11, 2018 at 20:18

TL;DR There is no mistake in the sentence

First things first, the sentence as it stands is 100% acceptable and grammatical. But a really persnickety nit-picking language textbook author might insist or suggest that can is needed to express ability more explicitly. Compare the following statements

  1. There are many Danes who speak English at work.
  2. There are many Danes who can speak English at work.

Although both sentences are grammatically correct, semantically they do not mean the same. In the first sentence, we are stating that English is regularly spoken by many Danes in their workplace. In the second sentence, we are expressing the Danes' ability to speak English at work. If needed, Danish workers are able to speak English for work purposes.

Another example,

  1. There are many Danes who speak English every day
  2. There are many Danes who can speak English every day

If this were a multiple-choice exercise, I would tell students that sentence No.1 is preferable if the context explains that Danes speak English on a regular basis: at home, school, and at work. Sentence No.2 is grammatical but its meaning is odd, it suggests that either a large number of Danes know how to speak English every day or there is a nonsensical imposed limit.

Thus, perhaps, the author (or nitpicking grammarian, take your pick) expects the student studying English, to use can to express or emphasize the ABILITY to do something.

There are many Danes who can speak English

The writer clearly expresses the concept that a great number of Danes are able to speak English. The focus in this example is on ability not on frequency. Nit-picking, I know.

As the saying goes, there's more than one way to skin a cat, so the following variants (sentences 2-7) are all possible solutions but without actually seeing/reading the preceding book units it's impossible to tell which "error" (semantic, syntax, register) the author is referring to in the original sentence.

  1. There are many Danes who speak English.
  2. There are many Danes who speak English every day.
  3. There are many Danes that speak English.
  4. There are many Danes who can speak English. (the simplest "correction")
  5. Many Danes are able to speak English
  6. A great number of Danes speak English. (more formal)
  7. There are a great number of Danes who speak English
  • 1
    "There are many Danes that speak English." This one is used a lot in informal speech nowadays, but I would never write it and would discourage students from writing it. "That" is for objects, not for persons.
    – RedSonja
    Jan 9, 2018 at 14:21
  • 1
    @redsonja using that for people is perfectly fine, it's "which" that should be avoided.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 9, 2018 at 15:06
  • 1
    Hi Mari-Lou. I'm afraid I'm going to be "persnickety nit-picking" here!. I strongly agree with you that can relates to ability, and also that your No.1 choices are strongly preferable. But, to me, both No.2 sentences are nonsensical. To me, "There are many Danes who can speak English at work" begs the Qs. as to why they have that ability only when at work, or whether they can also speak English when not at work! Likewise, "There are many Danes who can speak English every day" makes me ask why some Danes have the ability to speak English only on certain days - but not every day!
    – TrevorD
    Jan 9, 2018 at 19:44
  • 1
    @Mari-LouA I realize what you were trying to explain, but I found the references to being able to speak English at work - as distinct from when not at work (and similarly for every day) - rather confusing.
    – TrevorD
    Jan 9, 2018 at 20:04
  • 1
    @TrevorD that's hardly surprising, given English is named after early Danish settlers in Britain Jan 10, 2018 at 2:30

It is not an error to say "There are many Danes who speak English".

It would be an error to say, for example "There are many Danes speak English".

I suggest you go to a better English teacher. You are being given horrendous advice if you are being taught that "There are many Danes who speak English" is wrong.

Also, a comment to tchrist. No speaker of standard English would say "There are many Danes which speak English". This is wrong. tchrist correctly points out that "There are many Danes that speak English" is also correct. It may be much less common in written English, partly because of grammar Nazis.

Richard Mullins

  • 1
    Do you have a reference for why that is acceptable but not which? As far as I was aware, everyone had pretty much given up trying to instil a distinction long ago; I'd be interested to read about any historical (or modern) precedent. Jan 9, 2018 at 17:40
  • You mean get a better textbook. He is an English teacher. Jan 11, 2018 at 9:53
  • @user2617804 He is also a she. ;-) Feb 16, 2018 at 17:49

They're most likely looking for "Many Danes speak English." This sentence has the Danes "speaking" (active verb), as opposed to simply "being" as in the original sentence, which starts with the passive phrase "There are".

  • 4
    Welcome to EL&U. As I noted elsewhere, There are does not mark a passive, and the passive voice is not somehow ungrammatical, though— just like the active voice— it should be employed appropriately.
    – choster
    Jan 10, 2018 at 2:02

I think the intended correct version would be

There are many Danes speaking English.


There are many Danes who speak English.

is considered short for

There are many Danes. They speak English.

. Considering that I am the first one to even bring this interpretation up, this fine distinction does not seem to be recognizable in current language use any more if it ever was.

  • 2
    For it to be interpreted as "There are many Danes, and they speak English", there should be a comma between "Danes" and "who" to make it a nonrestrictive clause. Jan 9, 2018 at 18:54
  • 8
    -1 "There are many Danes who speak English." is NOT "short for" "There are many Danes. They speak English." The first sentence means: there are many Danes (Danish people) who do / can speak English - BUT not all Danes do / can speak English. Your second sentence means: there are many Danes (Danish people) and they all speak English", which I doubt is true.
    – TrevorD
    Jan 9, 2018 at 19:14

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