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"There is" or "There are"
February 25, 2008 2:53 AM   Subscribe

English Grammar: "There is" vs. "There are". There is a banana. There are two oranges. There (is / are) a banana and an orange?

How about:
There (is / are) a banana and two oranges?
There (is / are) two oranges and a banana?

I've searched on google for a definitive answer to this question. Most of the ESL lessons I've come across avoid this kind of construction, altogether. I've also stumbled on some discussions of the topic which seem pretty contradictory.

For the example sentences I provided, I think the following answers are correct: "is", "is" and "are".

I understand that the subjects of all of the sentences are plural, but I think that an ellipsis allows for the "is", as in: There is a banana and (there is) an orange.

Can someone point me to a definitive answer?
posted by syzygy to Writing & Language (28 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
There is a banana and an orange in the fruit bowl. No, wait - there is a banana and two oranges in the fruit bowl. But that sounds kind of clumsy. So I'll settle for telling you that there are two oranges and a banana in the fruit bowl.
posted by flabdablet at 3:07 AM on February 25, 2008


Oh, we have more bananas than I thought. There is a bunch of bananas and two oranges in the fruit bowl.
posted by flabdablet at 3:08 AM on February 25, 2008


I have always been told that when you mix a plural and a singular in the same sentence, you can use either the plural or the singular verb. So, for example, either of the following sentences are correct:

There is a banana and two oranges.
There are a banana and two oranges.

I was also told that most people tend to use whichever verb corresponds to the closest noun. So in that case, "There is a banana and two oranges," is somewhat more popular. I think the idea is that this sounds more "natural" to some people because "There are a banana" can sound strange until they finish reading the sentence.

In reading, I have come across both and never considered one more correct than the other, and I read and write a lot. However, I am just going by what I was taught, which could be wrong. I was always fortunate enough to have excellent English teachers, though, so I am inclined to doubt they were all wrong about this.
posted by Nattie at 3:13 AM on February 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


I don't think you would say "there is a banana and oranges". You should say "there are oranges and a banana"
posted by twistedonion at 3:13 AM on February 25, 2008


Hah, I mean "either of the following sentences is correct."
posted by Nattie at 3:14 AM on February 25, 2008


I looked in several usage guides and couldn't find anything on compound predicates. I think the ellipsis interpretation is a good one, and can be extended to your other examples.

I would say:

There is a banana and two oranges. → There is a banana and (there are) two oranges.
There are two oranges and a banana. → There are two oranges and (there is) a banana.

Using the latter formulation avoids any ambiguity between whether the predicate of "are" is just "two oranges" or is "two oranges and a banana." So I'd go with that.

Saying "There are a banana and two oranges" or "There is two oranges and a banana" is just wrong. Note that the rules for compound subjects would be quite clear.

An orange and two bananas are there.
Two bananas and an orange are there.
posted by grouse at 3:15 AM on February 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


Well, in that case I'd always go with the plural: There are two oranges and a bunch of bananas in the fruit bowl.
posted by maryh at 3:15 AM on February 25, 2008


"are"

two subjects sharing a verb make the verb plural. thus, "dick and jane walk to school." but "dick walks to school and jane follows later."

"there are an orange and a banana in the fruit bowl. there is a canteloupe in the fridge. there are grapes in the bag by the sink."
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:21 AM on February 25, 2008


grouse has it.
posted by Drexen at 5:00 AM on February 25, 2008


thinkingwoman, in the examples given, "an orange and two bananas" is not the subject. It is the predicate. The impersonal "there" is the subject.
posted by grouse at 5:09 AM on February 25, 2008


I would use 'are', but a comma gets you the 'is'.

There are an apple and two bananas in the bowl.

There is an apple, and two bananas, in the bowl.



Why you should use the plural is a bit more obvious in sentences like this:

"We are an Englishman and two Canadians"

To use the singular you have to say:

"I am an Englishman and they are two Canadians"
posted by unSane at 5:12 AM on February 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


It gets even clearer if you mess about with the sentence some more:

"There is an apple in the bowl, and two bananas"

Basically if you want to use the singular, separate the apple and the bananas with a comma or some words.
posted by unSane at 5:16 AM on February 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


Wouldn't it be so much easier if we had something like the French "Il y a" or the Spanish "Hay"? :)
posted by uvaleg at 6:41 AM on February 25, 2008


in the examples given, "an orange and two bananas" is not the subject. It is the predicate. The impersonal "there" is the subject.

No, "an orange and two bananas" is not the predicate; it is the predicate nominative, and therefore the linking verb agrees with it, as thinking woman noted. When you have a plural predicate nominative used with present or past "to be," it's always going to be "are/were."

The situation in which the verb agrees with the nearest subject is when multiple subjects are joined by "or/nor":

A banana or two oranges were in my lunchbag.
Two oranges or a banana was in my lunchbag.

Jim or I have to go pick up Auntie Ida at the bus stop.
The twins or Mary has to go pick up Auntie Ida at the bus stop.
Neither you nor the twins have to go pick up Auntie Ida at the bus stop.
posted by FelliniBlank at 6:49 AM on February 25, 2008


Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage (far and away the best usage book) says (under "there is, there are"):
...when a compound subject follows the verb and the first element is singular, we find mixed usage—the verb may be either singular or plural. Jesperson 1909-49 (vol. 2) explains the singular verb as a case of attraction of the verb to the first subject, and illustrates it with this from Shakespeare:
There comes an old man, and his three sons —As You Like It, 1600
Penn & Ebbitt 1972 also suggests that many writers feel the plural verb is awkward before a singular noun, and Bryant 1962 cites studies that show the singular verb is much more common in standard English. ... Some writers, however, follow formal agreement and use a plural verb...

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.
posted by languagehat at 6:58 AM on February 25, 2008 [3 favorites]


uvaleg: or the German "es gibt".

You're exactly right, though. In many languages, this problem(?) is completely avoided by treating the "there" (either stated or understood) as the subject, and it's always singular.

This question actually came to my mind when my girlfriend (native German speaker) asked me whether to use "are" or "is" in one of the sentence configurations mentioned above.

Unfortunately, this discussion hasn't cleared up the question for me, yet. I would like to see a definitive answer from a respected source (not to say that I don't respect my fellow mefites). Maybe either is acceptable, maybe the rules are different for British and American English.

The closest I have come to a definitive or authoritative answer is in an English Grammar book from 1862. It speaks of the ellipsis and backs up my original opinion on the matter. Still, I'd like to see something a little more recent / authoritative, if it exists.
posted by syzygy at 7:03 AM on February 25, 2008


What do you consider "a respected source"? Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary cites Otto Jespersen, who's about as respected a source as there is when it comes to English grammar.
posted by languagehat at 7:05 AM on February 25, 2008


On non-preview, Mr. Hat has the definitive answer.

Thanks!
posted by syzygy at 7:05 AM on February 25, 2008


Thank god for sanity in grammar.
posted by Brian James at 7:11 AM on February 25, 2008


There's a good answer and several duds in here.
posted by flabdablet at 7:33 AM on February 25, 2008


There's a banana and an orange.
There's a banana and two oranges.
There's two oranges and a banana.

Those all seem right to my ear.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 9:01 AM on February 25, 2008


I would use 'are', but a comma gets you the 'is'.

There is an apple, and two bananas, in the bowl.


The comma also gets you a really ugly sentence. I'd steer clear of that.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:46 AM on February 25, 2008


Just say "We've got a lot of fruit in the bowl"
posted by Acacia at 11:02 PM on February 25, 2008


I can't hear you. I have a banana and some oranges in my ear.
posted by Wolof at 2:32 AM on February 26, 2008


One problem that confuses the issue is that in (at least American) colloquial speech, it is very common to allow the use of "there's" (in contracted form) for singular or plural. That is to say, one often hears "there's tons of cars on the road" or "there's millions of solutions to the problem".

Notice that if you separated out "there is" (like, for emphasis), it starts to sound wrong. In colloquial speech, "there's" has taken on some sort of a special status. Also note that there is no counterpart to this phenomenon in which the plural verb form ("are") pairs up with a singular noun.

I believe that these are the reasons that "there's two oranges and a banana" sounds readily acceptable: because "there's two oranges on the table" sounds okay too (whereas "there is two oranges" suddenly sounds much worse!).

Going by any prescriptive rules that govern these kinds of and-joined constituents, generally one treats the and-joined combination, grammatically speaking, as a plural entity.

However, in practical terms, these kind of prescriptive rules are only useful in that they provide a "standard" for certain levels of formality. Therefore, if you are speaking casually, you should have no problem using "there's" across the board for these constructions. On the other hand, if you are giving a speech or writing an essay, where formality and standards (and therefore, prescriptive grammar notions) play a role, then you have the time and forethought to avoid this construction entirely, as it is clearly sloppy and awkward. (This is my practical solution, but the subject is definitely an interesting thing to ponder nonetheless!)
posted by kosmonaut at 8:56 AM on February 26, 2008


(This is going to bother me unless I ask for clarification.)

Languagehat, you say "Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage (far and away the best usage book)..."

Are you saying that the Concise Dictionary is better than the 'unconcise' Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage? The 'Concise' is an 800-page pb, the 'Unconcise' is a 978-page hc, but I don't know them: is the 'Concise' easier to use? Or is the bigger version significantly different somehow?

I'm not familiar with either version, and I'm perfectly willing to pick up any usage guide that carries your seal of approval - but I'm curious why you specified the 'Concise' edition. Thanks!
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 11:22 AM on February 26, 2008


Excellent question. When I made recommendations I used to say "Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage or Concise Dictionary of English Usage," but I got tired of writing all that out; since the Concise is newer, cheaper, and not really very concise (as you can see by the page count), I just stick to recommending it. But it's six of one, half a dozen of the other.
posted by languagehat at 11:56 AM on February 26, 2008


Thanks for the prompt answer. I generally have no objection to picking up another book - or even two closely related books - but I'm glad for the clarification.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 3:56 PM on February 26, 2008


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