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Expletive Sentences: Should You Start with 'There Is' or 'There Are'?

Subject-Verb Agreement: Sometimes it should be "there are." Find out why.

By
Mignon Fogarty,

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.

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, the editors of “The American Scholar” have a list of what they consider the 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.

Nevertheless, you can often rewrite expletive sentences to make them more straightforward, and you can see from our earlier example how easy it is to get rid of the word "there" and rephrase the sentence.

"There are 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," it's worth spending an extra second to check whether rewording it would make your writing better. Often it does.

How to Determine Subject-Verb Agreement in an Expletive Sentence

If you decide to keep a sentence with a "there is" or "there are" at the beginning, the trick to choosing your verb to use is to find the real subject of the sentence.

Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times best-seller, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

Web Bonus 

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.
8. It is a certainty that spring follows winter.
9. There are many things that determine whether a team gets to the playoffs.
10. It is my belief that cheesecake is the best dessert.


[Note that "it" can also be used at the head of an expletive sentence.]

EXERCISES! When and how should you start a sentence with "there is" or "there are"?

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