linguistics and lexicography Love English

There are plurals, and then there’s plurals

© PhotoDisc / Getty ImagesLast 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.

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About the author

Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

4 Comments

  • Excellent points, Stan. When I taught English in Romania, I always insisted on the ‘proper’ use of there is/there are. So, when I came to the UK and heard several people (including one of my CELTA tutors) saying ‘there’s + plural noun’, I was a bit surprised to put it mildly. I have no problem with it any more, but I tend to avoid it. Why? If a native English speaker says it, it will be perceived as informal. If I, as a non-native speaker, use it, I am afraid it’ll simply sound wrong, it will be perceived as a mistake. I may be wrong, of course. I’d love to hear your opinion on this – if you hear a non-native speaker saying “there’s a couple of issues with this”, would you think they have simply used informal language, or would you think they don’t know how to use there is/there are correctly?

  • Thanks for your considered comment, Alina. I see what you mean about how the variant usages could be perceived coming from non-native English-speakers. If I heard such an example, I would tend to give the speaker the benefit of the doubt and assume it was a natural, idiomatic choice. But others might not. It’s so common in informal English that the ‘mismatch’ might not even be noticed by most listeners most of the time. It depends also on the immediate context: some plural nouns may make notional agreement more noticeable. The phrase there’s a couple of issues with this sounds fine because couple is a singular noun (that takes a plural verb). In the similar phrase there’s two issues with this, the lack of formal agreement is more conspicuous, but would still sound fine to me in a colloquial register.

  • “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”
    It is certainly less formal, but informality neither defines nor excuses the correctness of usage. The concepts are not related. It would be fair to say that informal usage is always incorrect. That is why it is called informal usage, precisely because it is incorrect. If it were not, there would be no need to even mention the “Informal usage” phrase. In this context, “Informal usage” is a euphemism. If it had any real merit, one could employ the excuse of informality to excuse EVERY incorrect usage of language in every situation that it occurs.. However, that would not make incorrect usage magically become correct.
    “It’s fair to assume that these authors knew what they were doing”.
    I disagree completely. It would be much more logical, more reasonable and certainly more sensible to assume that they OUGHT to have known what they were doing but, on occasion, as humans do, they made mistakes. It doesn’t matter how many instances of incorrect usage by well known authors are dug up, that still would not make the incorrect usage correct.
    I do not understand why so much time, space, effort and ingenuity is expended in yet further confusing an already incredibly inconsistent and imperfect.system of lnguage conventions. It would all be much better placed in attempting to rationalize the imperfect ‘rules’ rather than undermining them still further.

  • ‘It would be fair to say that informal usage is always incorrect.’

    No, it wouldn’t – any more than wearing a T-shirt around the house instead of formal attire is ‘incorrect’. Correctness is not absolute – it’s about what is appropriate in a given context. Nor is ‘informal usage’ a euphemism. On the contrary: it is a plain and accurate description of language in use. ‘Proper’ usage is privileged, but most language is informal.

    Authors do make mistakes, but to claim that a grammatical structure used by authors, condoned by their editors, proofreaders, and publishers, and adopted frequently by millions of native speakers for centuries, should be considered a ‘mistake’, is to attempt to rationalise an untenable position.

    George Campbell comes to mind. In his The Philosophy of Rhetoric, he wrote: ‘It is not the business of grammar, as some critics seem preposterously to imagine, to give law to the fashions which regulate our speech. On the contrary, from its conformity to these, and from that alone, it derives all its authority and value.’

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