Oddness When You Start a Sentence with "There Is"
A listener reader named Joe wants to know whether he should say, "There is a couch and a coffee table in the room," or "There are a couch and a coffee table in the room."
His question brings up an interesting quirk about the word "there."
One of the most common ways to organize an English sentence is to put the subject first and the verb second. That's how it works in sentences such as "I cooked" and "Pat threw up." The pronoun "I" and the noun "Pat" are the subjects and they come first, and the verbs "cooked" and "threw up" come second. We're all very comfortable with sentences that use this pattern (even if we're not all comfortable with my cooking).
The word "there" can function as both a noun and a pronoun, but even though "there" comes first and is followed by a verb in sentences such as "There are a couch and coffee table in the room," "there" isn't the subject, and that's why Joe is confused.
What Is an Expletive Sentence?
The trick to choosing the right verb is to find the real subject of the sentence.
Sentences beginning with "there are" and "there is" are using a different kind of sentence structure called an expletive construction. You can get a sense of how expletive sentences are different from the more common subject-verb sentence structure because if you swap in another noun for the word "there," the meaning changes.
For example, let's create a similar sentence with different noun in place of "there." Instead of "There is a couch and a coffee table," let's try "Bob is a couch and a coffee table." The new noun, "Bob," is clearly the subject and drives our verb choice. I'm making some sort of weird statement about Bob actually being a couch and a coffee table, and the verb choice is clear to native English speakers. You'd never be temped to say " Bob are a couch and a coffee table."
But when the sentence starts with "there" instead of "Bob," it's easier to get confused. You think "there" is the subject, but you also sense that something seems different or wrong. In the expletive sentence, the pronoun "there" is just filling up space. It's kind of hanging out pointing to what's going on in the other part of the sentence. It's not the subject. The subject is actually "a couch and a coffee table."
It's a compound subject since it has two nouns connected by the word "and," which makes it plural, but it's still a subject; and it's always the subject of a sentence that drives your verb choice, even if the subject isn't at the beginning of the sentence.
Now that you know the subject is "a couch and a coffee table" and that it's plural, it's easy to choose the right verb: "are." Plural subject take plural verbs. (The subjects are underlined in the following examples.)
- Cookies are good.
- Trees are tall.
- A couch and a coffee table are in the room.
- There are a couch and a coffee table in the room.
Is It Bad to Start a Sentence with "There is"?
Did you see what I did with the last two sentences? In the first one, I used the common sentence order and put the subject first:
A couch and a coffee table are in the room.
In the second one, I flipped it around and added a "there are" to make an expletive sentence:
There are a couch and a coffee table in the room.
Although I believe people often take this suggestion to extremes, many sources say that expletive sentences are bad style and should be avoided, and you can see from the example how easy it is to get rid of the word "there" and rephrase the sentence.
"There is a couch and a coffee table in the room" easily becomes "A couch and a coffee table are in the room." If you want to go wild, you could even use a more descriptive verb and write, "A couch and a coffee table *sit* in the room," or "A couch and a coffee table *grace* the room."
When you're editing your work and find a sentence that starts with "there are" or "there is," see whether rewording it would make your work better. Often it does.
[Added 5/10/2014: As a wonderful counterexample, see The American Scholar's list of the 10 best sentences. Four of them are expletive sentences.]
How to Determine Subject-Verb Agreement in an Expletive Sentence
And if you decide to keep a sentence with a "there is" or "there are" at the beginning, the trick to figuring out what verb to use is to find the real subject of the sentence.
Rewrite these sentences to avoid the expletive construction:
1. There is water in the lake.
2. There is no historical precedent for this case.
3. There are many theories about the bacteria's origin.
4. There are five students who want to be class president.
5. There is ice cream in the freezer.
6. It is hamburger that makes me drool.
7. It is Bob who thinks he is a couch and a chair.
[Note that "it" can also be used at the head of an expletive sentence.]