Oddness When You Start a Sentence with "There Is"
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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.