A 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 sneezed" and "Pat coughed." The pronoun "I" and the noun "Pat" are the subjects and they come first, and the verbs "sneezed" and "coughed" come second. We're all comfortable with sentences that use this pattern (even if we're not comfortable when we're sick).
Getting back to Joe's question, 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 in that sentence, 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, but the verb choice is more obvious. You'd never be temped to say, "Bob are a couch and a coffee table."
Now let’s try a more normal noun for the sentence such as “happiness." “Happiness is a couch and a coffee table.” Again, the noun, “happiness,” is clearly the subject and drives our verb choice. A native speaker would never be tempted to say, “Happiness are a couch and a coffee table."
But when the sentence starts with "there" instead of "Bob" or "happiness," 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.
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.”
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.]