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Author Topic: The wisdom of routinely avoiding anticipatory “there is/are” clauses  (Read 11243 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: September 05, 2011, 05:41:55 AM »

Let’s face it. A lot of people—native or nonnative English speakers alike—get into the habit of using the so-called anticipatory “there is/there are” clause when talking off the cuff, as in “There’s something fishy happening but I just can’t figure it out.” It does sound and feel as the easiest and most natural way to begin talking, even if many teachers of English pointedly advise that it’s better and more concise to knock off that anticipatory clause and simply say “Something’s fishy but I just can’t figure it out.” As many of us will probably remember, their chief but seemingly counterintuitive argument against “there is/there are” clauses is that they just foster lazy thinking among their users.

In an essay I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in April of 2010, I discussed an even stronger reason for routinely avoiding anticipatory “there is/there are” clauses—the fact that the usage is fraught with subject-verb disagreement pitfalls when used indiscriminately. I am now posting that essay in this week’s edition of the Forum to serve as a continuing reminder of the wisdom of that cautionary advice. (September 4, 2011)

The pitfalls in using “there is”/“there are” clauses

A few days ago, I received through e-mail the following very interesting grammar question from Dantreys, a member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum:

“Hi, Joe! An opinion writer in one of the major broadsheets wrote an article yesterday that contained this sentence:

“‘There was once a time when there was more than one exchange existing all at the same time.’

“I feel a bit queasy about the sentence because something tells me the correct verb right before ‘more’ should be ‘were’ since it refers to ‘more than one exchange,’ which, notionally, is a plural subject. What do you think?”

Here’s my reply to Dantreys:

The sentence in question is an example of a construction that uses the so-called “anticipatory ‘there’ clause” twice. The pronoun “there,” of course, is the anticipatory subject in each case. In such constructions, “there” carries little or no independent meaning but simply points forward to the notional subject that’s placed later in the sentence for reasons of end weight or emphasis. That notional subject is the noun phrase “once a time” for the first anticipatory “there,” and “more than one exchange” for the second anticipatory “there.”

Now, your question is: Since the operative verb “was” refers to “more than one exchange,” which is a plural subject, shouldn’t that verb take the plural form “were” instead to ensure subject-verb agreement?

The correct usage in this case remains debatable today, but my personal preference is to use the singular “was” instead of “were”; in effect, I’m saying that the use of “was” by that broadsheet’s opinion writer is grammatically correct. This usage preference is the so-called descriptivist position, which maintains that since the “there is” combination is mostly followed by a singular subject, it has become a standard way of introducing a subject, whether singular or plural. 

In American English, in particular, when a compound subject follows the verb in a “there is” construction, the verb very often takes the singular form, as in this sentence: “There is shame and dishonor in being found to be unfit for public office.” See and feel how badly that sentence sounds when “there are” is used instead: “There are shame and dishonor in being found to be unfit for public office.”

The prescriptivist position, on the other hand, recommends that after the expletive “there,” the verb is singular or plural depending on whether the subject that follows is singular or plural. This is actually the usage that you said you’re more comfortable with: “There was once a time when there were more than one exchange existing all at the same time.” It looks and sounds a little bit awkward to me, but I’m not saying that it’s grammatically wrong. So long as you are consistent with the usage and you can explain your position, I don’t think there should be any problem.

Having said that, however, let me add that English teachers of the traditional bent discourage the use of the expletives “there is” (and “it is”) by students, arguing that this usage fosters lazy thinking. My own position is that expletives are tolerable when used sparingly and judiciously—perhaps no more than once or twice every one or two pages of the standard manuscript page. But when the anticipatory “there” is used twice in a row in the same sentence, which is the case in that opinion writer’s sentence, the resulting construction is decidedly awkward and convoluted.

As an editor, in fact, I always suggest routinely avoiding “there is” constructions because of their needless, oftentimes confusing complexity. It’s better to simplify the sentence in question by eliminating the second of its anticipatory “there” clauses: “There was once a time when more than one exchange existed all at the same time.” Better still, by eliminating the first anticipatory “there” clause as well: “One time, more than one exchange existed all at the same time.” (April 10, 2010)
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From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, April 10, 2010 © 2010 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: September 05, 2011, 12:48:59 PM by Joe Carillo » Logged

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