English grammar often follows logical patterns and rules, which makes it easier to teach and learn. However, there are times when English grammar isn’t logical, such as when the indefinite subject there is followed by a series of nouns. What’s the best way to present this tricky grammar point to our students?
In English, a plural subject takes a plural verb. We often use the conjunction and to create a plural subject.
- Friends are important.
- Mika and Juan are classmates.
Sentences that begin with the indefinite subject there are very common in English. They are used to describe a situation (often involving preposition of place and a location). When we use there as a subject, the verb must agree with the nouns that come after the verb.
- There is a book on the table.
- There are five books on the table.
But when there refers to a series of nouns using a conjunction like and or or, it seems like logic goes out the window. We know that X and Y means at least two, so why would there ever be a singular verb used in this case? It can be very surprising for students to learn that it is not only possible but also common to see a singular verb before more than one noun.
- There is a cat and a dog on my bed.
- There is a fork, a knife, and a spoon in front of me.
Let’s take a closer look at the not-so-logical rules for noun series with there.
Rule 1: There Is
When the first noun in the series is singular or non-count, use there is.
- There is a book and a pen in my bag.
- There is a computer, a whiteboard, and an overhead projector in the classroom.
- There is a pillow, sheets, and two blankets on my bed.
- There is cream and sugar on the table.
- There is juice, milk, and soft drinks in the fridge.
- There is a lot of dirt and pebbles on my son’s clothes.*
*(Dirt is non-count, so we use is even with the plural quantifier a lot of.)
Rule 2: There Are
When the first noun in the series is plural, use there are.
- There are flowers and herbs in my mom’s garden.
- There are cookies and a sandwich in my lunch bag.
- There are three pens, a pencil, and two erasers in that desk drawer.
- There are chips and popcorn at the party.
- There are many types of music and food at this event.
- There are a lot of pebbles and dirt on my son’s clothes.
It is very common to shorten there is to there’s in informal speaking and writing. However, there’re is almost never used because it is awkward to say and write (and to me it’s wrong, though some people say it’s possible). I encourage my students to use there’s, but I teach them not to use there’re.
- There’s a box and some packing tape in the storage room.
- There’s a lot of money and help available for refugees in my city.
Even though there is and there are are describing a specific noun, they are almost always followed by a, not the (see this post for a few exceptions). Make sure students realize that the second noun in the sentence (that describes the location) will take the, as usual.
- There is a bird and a squirrel in the tree.
- There is a piano and two guitars on the stage.
3. There, There
Can we have there twice in a sentence? It’s definitely possible. The first there is an indefinite subject with no real meaning, while the second there is a location that’s usually a bit further away (i.e., the opposite of here).
- There is a gas station and a grocery store over there.
- You mean the parking lot behind the school? There is a car and three trucks there.
Tell learners that this rule can be used in any tense (e.g., there was/were, there has been/have been, etc.). You should also point out that modal constructions only have one form, so students can’t go wrong here (e.g., there will be, there can be, there should be, etc.).
- There was a business conference and a wedding going on at our hotel last night.
- There were two canoes and a kayak out on the lake last weekend.
- There will be a luncheon and an awards ceremony next Friday.
- There will be refreshments and drinks at the meeting.
When how something sounds to the ear trumps grammatical logic, it is known as euphony. Merriam-Webster defines euphony as “pleasing or sweet sound; especially: the acoustic effect produced by words so formed or combined as to please the ear.” Euphony helps explain the less-than-logical situation of there is + nouns in a series.
Note that not everyone agrees on how to treat there with a series of nouns.
- Some grammar books consider the rules mentioned in this post to be standard. For example, Collins Cobuild English Grammar states “You use a singular form of ‘be’ when you are giving a list of items and the first noun in the list is singular or uncountable.”
- Other grammar books state that the above rules are only for informal English. They say that in formal English, you should always use a plural verb with a series of nouns, even if the first noun is singular. Consider Azar’s Understanding and Using English Grammar, which states: “Sometimes in informal English, a singular verb is used after there when the first of two subjects connected by and is singular. For example: Formal: There are a book and a pen on the desk. Informal: There is a book and a pen on the desk.”