Last month I gave an overview of grammatical agreement, also called concord, and explained the difference between two main types of it: formal agreement and notional agreement. In this post I focus on a common phrase that exemplifies the difference: there is, where there is known as a dummy, existential, introductory, or anticipatory subject.
There are good reasons to obey formal agreement when you use a form of there is. But there’s also reasons not to, sometimes. Using there are with a plural subject, as I did at the start of this paragraph, is formally correct, and appropriate in most situations. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily wrong or inappropriate to use there is with a plural subject, and the same goes for the reduced form there’s and the past tense there was.
Some prescriptivists would insist that a line like There’s two patients in the waiting room is wrong, end of discussion. But it’s more accurate and reasonable to just consider it less formal. This is precisely the distinction made in Quirk and Greenbaum’s University Grammar of English, in distinguishing it from There are two patients in the waiting room.
Although the informal, singular form is more suited to conversational speech and is generally dispreferred in writing, it does occur in edited prose. Here are (or Here’s) a few examples I’ve come across:
They were living in the suburbs, and in those days there was still barrel organs playing in the streets. (Penelope Fitzgerald, The Beginning of Spring)
But there was no ants left. (Raymond Carver, ‘The Idea’, from Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?)
Well, there wasn’t any new methods of stopping feeling depressed; there were only the old methods. (Dan Kavanagh [aka Julian Barnes], Fiddle City)
Up on the road, he said, there was hardly any cars, because petrol was rationed, there were only creamery cars and bicycles. (Edna O’Brien, A Pagan Place)
‘There’s worse things.’ (Lawrence Block, Everybody Dies)
There’s worse things, indeed – as even Shakespeare knew (‘Honey, and milk, and sugar: there is three’). It’s fair to assume that these authors knew what they were doing. Maybe some of the lines were flagged by a copy editor and the writer overruled them. Or maybe the editors understood that the writer was aiming for a more colloquial or dialectal register.
More complex cases arise when the subject contains multiple elements. Compare, for example, There was one ball and two racquets and There were one ball and two racquets. Again, both are justifiable, though a singular verb appears to be more common when the first noun is singular. Here’s an example I read recently, in Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House: ‘There was a gramophone and some records lying idly about.’
Pedants might feel that there should be only one right way, but this is a misapprehension. There’s always options in English.Email this Post