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Author Topic: Subject-verb agreement in “there is/there are” sentences  (Read 112 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: November 28, 2017, 09:50:37 PM »

We are all familiar with the basic subject-verb agreement rule that when the subject consists of two singular nouns or pronouns connected by “and,” the verb should take the plural form to agree with the compound subject, as in this sentence: “The husband and his wife are on vacation.” But what happens when “there” introduces a compound subject consisting of a singular noun and a plural noun? Shouldn’t the verb consistently take the plural form considering that it has a compound—hence obviously plural—subject?

This grammar dilemma was presented sometime ago by a Forum member who goes by the username English Editor.

The question:

“May I please be enlightened as to which verb is correct in this sentence: ‘There (is, are) cake and some balloons in the house’?

“We have a compound subject here and my first impulse is to use ‘are.’ However, I am confused. I don’t know if I should add ‘a’ before ‘cake’ (‘There is a cake and some balloons in the house’) or use ‘are’ (‘There are cake and some balloons in the house’). In the first place, should ‘cake’ be treated as a noncount noun here?”

My reply to English Editor:

That sentence uses the so-called “anticipatory ‘there’ clause,” with the pronoun “there” functioning as the anticipatory subject. 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. In this case, there are actually two subjects—the singular “cake” and the plural “balloons”—forming a compound subject.

Some grammarians maintain that in anticipatory “there” constructions, the verb should take the singular form when the first noun of its compound subject is singular, as in this sentence: “There is shame and dishonor in being found unfit for public office.” Indeed, that sentence would be syntactically defective and would read badly if the plural “are” is used: “There are shame and dishonor in being found to be unfit for public office.” When the first noun of the compound subject is plural, however, the verb obviously should take the plural form: “There are contrary views and an affirmative view.”  

For this reason, I find the following proximity rule for such sentences clearer and more practical: In “there is”/ “there are” sentences, the verb should agree with the number of the noun or pronoun that immediately follows the verb. So, in the sentence in question, since the singular “cake” immediately follows the verb, that sentence should be constructed as follows:

There is cake and some balloons in the house.”

In the construction above, it’s assumed that several cakes are referred to collectively, so “cake” is treated as a noncount, notionally singular noun. But if the speaker specifically has in mind only one cake—say one big birthday cake—then that sentence could very well use “cake” as a countable noun preceded by the article “a,” as follows:

There is a cake and some balloons in the house.”

Following the proximity rule, of course, the verb will take the plural form if the plural “balloons” is what immediately follows the verb:

There are some balloons and a cake in the house.”


Here’s another interesting grammar question, this time from Forum member English Maiden:

“I’ve always wondered if there’s any semantic difference between the sentence pairs that follow:

“1A. ‘I am Filipino.’ 1B. ‘I am a Filipino.’

“2A. ‘We are Filipino.’ 2B. ‘We are Filipinos.’

“Are both sentence pairs above acceptable and freely interchangeable? I want to know if there’s any difference between them.”

My reply to English Maiden:

Both sentence pairs are grammatically correct and freely interchangeable. The only difference is that the first sentence of each pair (1A and 2A) uses “Filipino” as an adjective, while the second sentence (1B and 2B) uses “Filipino” as a noun complement. (2012)

This essay, 775th of the series, first appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the January 21, 2012  issue of The Manila Times, © 2012 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: November 28, 2017, 09:55:52 PM by Joe Carillo » Logged

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