Should you start a sentence with “there is” or “there are”?
Have you ever heard it’s bad to start sentences with “there are,” “there is,” and “it is”? These phrases can be part of what are called expletive sentences. And no! I’m not talking about swearing!
Swearing and expletives
The word “expletive” comes from Latin that means “to fill,” and in English, it’s come to mean something that takes up space without adding anything. The swear-word meaning goes back to the 1600s and may have been popularized by Sir Walter Scott in the early 1800s. And it was definitely popularized by the Watergate tapes in the 1970s that included the phrase “expletive deleted” over and over again because Richard Nixon and his aides apparently had potty mouths.
Grammar and expletives
We are talking about the grammatical meaning of “expletive,” which goes back even further.
What is an expletive sentence?
In grammar, an expletive is a sentence that starts with phrases such as “there is,” “there are,” and “it is.”The two meanings have something in common though: they both essentially refer to filler words. Those “there are”s and “it is”s, take up space without adding any meaning to the sentences, and that’s why you’re generally told to avoid them.Like most writing advice, however, it’s not absolute.
When is it OK to start a sentence with ‘there are’?
Many sources say that expletive sentences are bad style and should be avoided, but I think that advice is extreme, especially in fiction, for example. Consider that the editors of “The American Scholar” have a list of what they consider opens in a new windowthe 10 best sentences, and four of them are expletive sentences:Here’s one from Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita”: There is nothing more atrociously cruel than an adored child.Even in nonfiction writing, these phrases sometimes help you emphasize something or change the rhythm or focus of a sentence. For example, if Squiggly wanted to take chocolate making lessons in France, but didn’t speak French, Aardvark might say, “There is a problem with your plan.” That puts the word “problem” right up front in the sentence compared to “Your plan has a problem.”Some people say an expletive sentence like that, with the word “problem” at the beginning, puts more emphasis on the word “problem,” and I feel like it does. But if you are an astute listener, you will notice that this contradicts the advice Roy Peter Clark gave us about the last word in a sentence being a point of emphasis. “Your plan has a problem.” It may be that there is a difference between speaking and writing. As a listener, hearing the word “problem” first makes it jump out at you. But as a reader, seeing the word “problem” last may make it stick with you more.
When not to start a sentence with ‘there are’
Either way, we can agree that the two sentences sound different, and there are times when you will want one or the other. But having looked at a lot of student writing when I was a professor, I can definitely tell you that a huge chunk of the time, you’ll improve your work by looking for expletive sentences and rewriting them. “There are many people who wrote a letter to the editor,” can become “Many people wrote a letter to the editor.”“There are a few things I need to do today,” can become “I need to do a few things today.”
How to determine subject-verb agreement in an expletive sentence
Another problem with expletive sentences is that sometimes it can be tricky to pick the right verb because the subject isn’t at the beginning of the sentence where you’re used to seeing it most of the time.In English, most of our sentences use the subject-verb-object structure. In “Many people wrote a letter to the editor,” for example, the subject comes first (“Many people”), the verb comes next (“wrote”), and the object comes last (“a letter to the editor”). Subject-verb-object: Many people-wrote-a letter to the editor.But in expletive sentences, the thing that comes first isn’t the subject. “There” isn’t the subject in “There are many people who wrote a letter to the editor.” Even though “there” is at the beginning of the sentence, and it’s followed by a verb (!), the words are just filler. “There” isn’t the subject. “Many people” is the subject. It’s doing the action of the verb: “writing.” But it’s playing hide-and-seek in the middle of the sentence.Now, it might seem straightforward to pick the verb here — you probably wouldn’t be tempted to write “There is many people who wrote a letter” — but it can get tricky when you have a compound subject made up of singular nouns.For example, I had a question from a listener named Joe a while ago about this sentence:“There is a couch and a coffee table in the room.” Or should that be “There are a couch and a coffee table in the room”?Well, you have to identify the subject, which is hiding in the middle of this expletive sentence. It might be tempting to start with “There is a couch…” but the entire subject is “a couch and a coffee table,” and the word “and” makes it plural even though the individual elements are singular. 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 subjects take plural verbs.
- 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.
Just as we’d say, “Squiggly and Aardvark are best friends,” using the plural verb “are,” we say, “A couch and a coffee table are in the room.” Therefore, when we flip it around in an expletive sentence, we still use the plural verb: “There are a couch and a coffee table in the room.” But…even though it’s right, that still sounds weird to a lot of people, which is why Joe asked the question in the first place. Some sentences sound bad even when they’re right. It’s enough to make you use the other kind of expletive!So although this has been an interesting exercise — figuring out how to identify the subject — this is exactly the kind of expletive sentence you want to just delete (swoosh!) so you can start over and write something better like “The room has a couch and a coffee table.” When you’re editing your work, look for sentences that start with the words “there” and “it” to see whether rewording them would make them better. Often it does.
Web Bonus: Test Your Knowledge
Identify the subject in each sentence, and then rewrite the sentence to avoid the expletive construction:
- There are a few things I would like to discuss with you.
- There are many people who would like to go to France.
- There are five students who want to be class president.
- There was a man who left this cone in the street.
- It is cheese that makes me drool.
- There is a cat in the tree.
- There are pickles, olives, and cheese on the platter.
- It is necessary to study for the final.
- It is important to eat a healthy breakfast.
- It is impossible to please everyone.