The Negative Canon: ‘There’s’ + Plural Noun Phrase

This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.

Many might agree with Peter Harvey’s view in ‘A Guide to English Language Usage’ that ‘a common colloquial mistake of speakers is to use there is with a plural complement’, as in his example There’s four people waiting to see you.

But is it a mistake? If it is, then it has been one continuously for nearly 400 years, as the following citations from the OED show:

I know there’s many worthy proiects done, The which more credit . . . hath won. (1619)

There’s many . . . Whom I have nipt i’ th’ ear. (around 1627)

For modelling brave Cities, and each Town, There’s many women were of great renown. (1652)

There’s many more who slave and toil, Their living to get. (1707)

He’s a wicked auld man, and there’s many would like to see him girning in a tow. (1886)

There’s many places here is gentle (1907)

Records in the British National Corpus show its more recent use:

I think there’s many more women driving now aren’t there? (1992)

I don’t think there’s many of them that go to football anyway is there? (1993)

There’s many factors, many factors, and I’d like to pay congratulations to Councillor X (1994)

Cos I don’t think there’s many people in this room could probably programme a video itself. (1992)

In ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’, Pam Peters reports that:

. . .  the formal agreement is strictly maintained in academic writing. But in narrative and everyday writing, ‘there is’ and especially ‘there’s’ is found with plural nouns, as in:

‘There’s tears in her eyes.’

‘There’s certain ways of getting round it.’

‘There’s lots of new plays being written.’

She notes that ‘in conversation the combination of there’s with a plural noun is in fact more common than there are, according to the Longman Grammar, and gives further examples showing that singular agreement is found:

  • in negative statements;
  • before collective phrases such as ‘a set/handful/crowd of’ with a following plural noun; and
  • when a compound subject follows.

She concludes that:

These various uses of ‘there’s’ with plural (or notionally plural) noun phrases show how the structure is working its way into the standard.

‘Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage’ reports the distinguished linguist Otto Jespersen’s suggestion that ‘there is or there’s is often out – in speech or on paper – before the whole sentence is formulated. Jespersen also noted that the invariable singular occurs mostly in the colloquial style – speech and speechlike prose – and is generally avoided in the literary style. That accords with MWDEU’s own evidence.

In speech, there’s  + plural noun phrase might be considered what David Crystal here (from 1:03) describes as a blend. Yesterday, for example, I found myself saying something like There’s some more of them along here. The Jespersen conjecture partly explains it, but I wonder if it isn’t also simply that there’s is easier to say than there are.

Writers have time to review what they’ve written and may very well choose, at least in formal writing, to change any instances of there’s + plural noun phrase to there are. However, if Pam Peters is right we can expect to see it more frequently in at least semi-formal writing. She suggests that it may ‘be evolving into a fixed phrase, rather like the French C’est . . .’ She would perhaps have done better to have compared it with French il y a, which is every bit as singular as ‘there’s’, but which is standard with both singular and plural noun phrases.

With so much evidence for the use of there’s followed by a plural noun phrase, it doesn’t seem enough to say that it’s a mistake. What I think it does show is that the grammar of speech is different from the grammar of writing, and that the former has the potential to change the latter.

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19 Comments

Filed under The Negative Canon

19 responses to “The Negative Canon: ‘There’s’ + Plural Noun Phrase

  1. The word-order structure of English sentences – subject-verb-predicate – has long fostered a disinclination in its speakers to treat what comes AFTER the verb as the thing that is the subject. Predicate nominatives are another casualty – That’s me, for example. Since there are so few ways for us to notice it – nouns have no object case (nor do two pronouns) – it’s easy to not realize that in fact “that’s you/John” is the same thing as “that’s me” rather than “that’s I”. So I think this is another example of that: “there” is analyzed by speakers as the subject. Who would say “it am I” as Chaucer did? Or “it are they”? Or “That are they”? So “That is” – and particularly the cliticized form which has become invariable – no matter what follows it. Because what follows the verb doesn’t govern it.

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  2. That sounds a persuasive explanation.

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  3. Just to add to your list, Michael Swan writes in Practical English Usage (and without comment) ‘… there is is also common before plural subjects in informal speech. – There’s two policemen at the door, Dad., and Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary gives the example sentence ‘There’s only four days left’, simply marking it as informal. Longman, however, warn against this, while Cambridge calls it ‘non-standard’ – ‘There’s (= there are) lives at stake and we can’t afford to take any risks’.

    But it does bring up the subject as to whether certain idiomatic expressions should be treated as incorrect just because they don’t fit in formal grammar; something I think you’ve already addressed in your differentiation between grammar and style, and perhaps an underlying theme of your negative canon series. As someone at Language Log once said ‘informal is normal’.

    One curious point is that these dictionaries don’t seem to agree whether introductory there is a pronoun or an adverb, Oxford and Cambridge go for the former, while Macmillan, Longman and Collins go for the former.

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  4. This made me immediately think of the German es gibt. Word for word, that means it gives, but its actual meaning and common translation is there is or there are, and regardless of the number following es gibt, the phrase is always singular. So, I suppose the Germans, speaking or writing, don’t need to think twice about this particular problem. An economical people, those Germans.

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  5. I don’t hesitate to write “there’s difficulties with that idea” or the like, assuming I’m using a register in which “there’s” is acceptable at all.

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  6. Thank you for all these comments. They’re worth more than a short reply here, so I’d like to pursue them in a further post.

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  7. I take your point about there is with a plural complement but I suggest that the situation is a little more complex. I wrote that comment as one of several warnings to readers that common native usage is not always to be taken as an example to follow, though I may have been a rather fierce mood when I composed that particular sentence, which, by the way, was written in 2001 or 2002. That was about the time when I bought my OED on CD-ROM and before many other research resources that we now take for granted, such as the internet and also the Cambridge Grammar, were available.

    My example was not chosen at random, however. Having written:

    “In There are a lot of cars in the streets and There are a large number of mistakes in this work the complement is taken logically as cars and mistakes and the verb is plural.”

    I continued with:

    A common colloquial mistake of native speakers is to use there is with a plural complement: There’s four people waiting to see you.

    In doing so I deliberately chose a cardinal number in order to contrast what I chose to call a mistake with the perfectly acceptable use of a plural verb with the grammatically singular nouns lot and number. I see that the result is not as clear as I would have wished and will clarify the point in a future edition.

    Were I setting out now as a grammarian to write about the usage of there is and there are, I would probably produce something similar to your description of the current state of things. But theory differs from practice; you know my pragmatic view of not teaching forms that are widely considered to be unacceptable in order to protect my students, and of course myself, from accusations of incorrectness. In this case there is the further point that EFL students seek clear guidelines that are as simple as possible. I cannot possibly tell them to use there is in all cases, however justified that may be theoretically. I can, on the other hand, say that there is is used with singular nouns and there are is used with plurals; they know these verb forms and can assimilate that rule easily. Or, as a third possibility, I can explain that there is is always possible with singulars and there are is always used with plurals, but that there is is sometimes used with singulars in certain special cases, though when that is done it is usually colloquial and is sometimes controversial. Though I have never tested the point, I am sure that my students would thank me for choosing the second option of the three. Teachers don’t lie, but we are not obliged to tell the whole truth. Far from it – a good teacher must not only know more than the students but must know than the students can ever be expected to need to know and select the most convenient way of presenting what is both true and necessary for the student.

    I have been unable to replicate your search results from the OED, which I see are all for there’s many. My version gives a nil return for any string with there’s and only a few for theres. Of the 19,538 matches for there is (which I have not examined closely) only a very tiny number are followed by a plural noun. Of the two entries for there is four only one is of interest: There is four sorts of Trades, that formerly used to cover Houses (shingler 1688), the other being: There is four or five times the number of Letters uncopied for one transcribed (uncopied 1737).

    On this EFL forum a teacher writes:

    I was in class the other day and asked the student how many papers he needed. He said four and I handed the papers to him saying, “There’s four.”

    As I walked away I started thinking about it. And, I’m so confused I don’t even know what my question is, other than why is there no verb agreement to the plural ‘4 sheets.’

    My response would be that it is seen as a set of four rather as one would say “There’s four pounds”.

    I have been thinking about exams. As an oral examiner for the Cambridge exams I would accept there is with a plural in the case of a candidate who was clearly fluent and had learnt it as colloquial English but not from one who had problems with verb/noun number concordance. However, ‘accept’ is not the appropriate word; we do not accept or reject individual items and one point like that would have a very small influence on the totality of the exam.

    Finally, what about the past? Is there was acceptable with a plural complement?

    I think there was many more women driving then wasn’t there?

    I don’t think there was many of them that went to football anyway was there?

    There was many factors, many factors, and I’d like to pay congratulations to Councillor X

    Cos I don’t think there was many people in that room could probably programme a video itself.

    I don’t say it doesn’t happen but it seems less likely – and maybe because of the ease of pronunciation point that you make.

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    • Thank you, Peter, for this considered response.

      If your students use ‘there is’ with singular nouns and there are with plurals, then they can’t go wrong, so that would seem to be the wisest choice. It would, though, presumably be necessary for to be explained to them at some stage why they hear native speakers using ‘there’s’ with a plural noun.

      I use the online OED which may offer facilities not available on the CD-ROM, which I believe is what you have. I deliberately searched for citations including ‘there’s many’ to exclude instances of the singular. Doing so, of course, picks up instances of ‘there’s many a’, which I imagine is uncontroversial.

      The question of what happens with the past tense has occurred to me as well, and it’s something I’d like to discuss in a future post.

      Can you, incidentally, say whether Pam Peters is right in suggesting that ‘There’s’ might go the way of French ‘C’est’? I wasn’t sure whether it can be followed by a plural in the way that ‘il y a’ can. In that respect, ‘il y ‘a is like German ‘es gibt’, although, as someone has pointed out to me, in those two cases what follows is an object, and not a complement.

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  8. In response to Warsaw Will’s comment:

    “Just to add to your list, Michael Swan writes in Practical English Usage (and without comment) ‘…there is is also common before plural subjects in informal speech. – There’s two policemen at the door, Dad.

    That is what he writes now. In my copy, dated 1986, Swan says:

    “When we tell people that something exists (or does not exist), we usually begin the sentence with there is, there are, etc. and put the real subject after the verb … There are is used with plural subjects.”

    The examples that he gives clearly differentiate between there is and there are forms in various tenses for singular and plural subjects.

    The reason why I have such an old edition of PEU is that when I started writing my own book in 1991 it was clear that I would have to stop using it, not only to avoid any possible suggestion of plagiarism (though the differences in content, style and intended readers are substantial) but also because I wanted to work out my own way of explaining things. I have nothing against the book at all but for those reasons I do not use it and do not have the latest edition.

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  9. Teachers certainly need to give explanations of peculiarities and exceptions but students cannot take everything in all at once. A wise teacher knows how far he can go and when to start introducing more complex material. A case in point would be telling beginners that a is used before consonants and an before vowels, then explaining that this refers to the sound not the letter, and later still explaining about words that begin with silent h. When I do explain silent h, I obviously mention hour, honour, heir and their derivatives but I very rarely mention the use of an before historic etc. It was not long after I started teaching that I realised that I was actually deceiving students by passing generalities off as universal rules. But by the time they reach the level of sophistication to meet and wonder about there’s with plural complements, they are sufficiently advanced to relate the phenomenon to the way in which native speakers of their own language don’t always obey the rules.

    I do have the CD-ROM version of the OED. The online version is prohibitively expensive for me, though I understand it is available free to UK residents.

    Spanish hay is also unchangeable. This is noticeable in the past and compound forms había, hubo, ha habido. A common mistake of English-speakers, one I used to make myself, is to make these plural habían, hubieron, han habido on the English analogy though they are transitive impersonal verbs followed by an object.

    Is Pam Peters (or are you) suggesting that c’est is becoming standard at the expense of ce sont? I can make no comment on modern colloquial French but I have found this:

    dans le cas où le sujet réel (faisant réellement l’action) est un nom ou un groupe nominal de la troisième personne du pluriel, alors le verbe être s’accorde avec son sujet réel à la troisième personne du pluriel, sauf dans certains cas (voir ci-dessous). Exemple : Ce sont tes parents au téléphone.
    http://www.francaisfacile.com/exercices/exercice-francais-2/exercice-francais-3555.php

    Two hyperlinks didn’t survive copying and pasting in my comment. They are:

    you know my pragmatic view
    http://lavengro.typepad.com/peter_harvey_linguist/2013/06/purism-the-economist-and-split-infinitives.html

    and

    On this EFL forum
    http://www.eslhq.com/forums/esl-forums/english-questions/theres-four-3619/

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    • Yes, I soon realised in my own limited teaching experience that it was often necessary to withhold some of the truth.

      Here’s the relevant passage from ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’:

      ‘These various uses of “there’s” with plural (or notionally plural) noun phrases show how the structure is working its way into the standard. It seems to be evolving into a fixed phrase, rather like the French “C’est . . .” , serving the needs of the ongoing discourse rather than the grammar of the sentence.’

      ‘French Grammar and Usage’ by Hawkins and Towell, which I should have consulted earlier, says:

      ‘In formal French, plural nouns and third person plural nouns are supposed to follow “ce sont”:
      “Ce sont mes parents.”
      “Ce sont eux.”

      However, most speakers (and even writers) of formal French use “c’est” in these cases these days:
      “C’est mes parents.”
      “C’est eux”.’

      I should have trusted Pam Peters after all.

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  10. The Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (Quirk et al.), which was my base reference for A Guide to English Language Usage, says (18.46) that existential there

    “often determines concord, governing a singular form of the verb, even when the following ‘notional subject’ is plural:
    There’s some people in the waiting room.
    occurs alongside:
    There are some people in the waiting room.”

    It also has under Existential sentences with relative and infinitive clauses (18.48):

    “Something keeps upsetting him. ~ There’s something (that) keeps upsetting him.
    I’d like you to meet some people. ~ There’s some people (that) I’d like you to meet.”

    Apart from that it has nothing about the precise point we are discussing, but all the other examples of existential there that it gives conform to the there is/are singular/plural rule.

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  11. Seems fairly consistent with the other authorities.

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  12. I agree that we shouldn’t over-complicate things for our students and I certainly wouldn’t actively teach this. And I notice that in a blog post I wrote on existential there, I didn’t mention it all.

    But if the question did come up, I’d give an honest explanation: i.e. that it’s OK in informal language, but not in more formal language, and that they’re probably better to stick with a plural verb just to be safe. But in the end it’s the student’s choice; we are simply advisers.

    Incidentally, for me the problem is that Polish students can tend to be a bit too formal, rather than the other way around.

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  13. Like most things it can be explained easily enough. All languages get a little ragged round the edges in colloquial use and it’s easy enough to find illogicalities in other languages. Just the other day I heard a very well educated and cultured Englishwoman say ‘It’s me and Grace are her godmothers.’ When a Spanish student says that English is strange, I ask why in Spanish the floor is masculine and the wall is feminine. ‘What characteristic does a wall have that makes it particularly feminine?’ I ask. Of course they have no answer, but the point is that they have never thought that their own language might have peculiarities of its own.

    I have a Polish student. She certainly has a formal way of learning. She has a very high level for communication but needs her grammar sorting out if she is to work as a lawyer in Germany. We are doing verbs with Murphy’s English Grammar in Use. Some verbs have no continuous form — she saw the list and asked if she just had to learn them or if there was any reason for this. So I gave her a full-scale lecture on stative and dynamic verbs and she got it straight off.

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    • Could it not perhaps be that it’s the written form of the language that’s out of step? If the spontaneous speech of a native speaker includes ‘It’s me and Grace are her godmothers’, any grammar of the language should really have to account for such constructions, and not explain them away as being in some way deviant.

      I’m sure she got it, Peter, because your lecture on stative and dynamic verbs was exemplary, but did you cover the McDonald’s slogan ‘I’m Lovin’ It’?

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      • Well yes, grammatical theory is fine but for teaching purposes it is easier to establish the rules and explain that they are not always obeyed. People can understand that because every language has examples of non-standard and idiosyncratic, even idiolectical, usage. The mistakes that language-learners make are not usually the same as the non-standard ways in which native speakers use a language. And it’s the old story that you have to learn the rules before you can break them. Adult language learners have a different approach from L1 children. They will inevitably analyse what they are presented with and use their intellectual powers to seek and make patterns and rules in order to assimilate it more easily. Exceptions can be tolerated, at least by sensible people, but in relation to a coherent system.

        I started my EFL career in Germany. As you know, German has a preposition an for things on a vertical surface. One student literally was unable to accept that English had no equivalent and that on served for both an and auf.

        In that particular sentence ‘It’s me’ is surely uncontroversial so the only real point is the omission of the relative pronoun, which is sometimes omitted in other cases. I suspect it’s a combination of starting a cleft sentence in very casual conversation and subconsciously taking the complement of ‘it’s’ as the subject of ‘are’. I don’t doubt that the woman in question, whom I know well, would be a little embarrassed to have it pointed out to her.

        Thanks for the compliment, but not many non-linguist students can easily understand that point immediately. Part of the problem is that some things are easier to teach as they are, as isolated phenomena, than by explaining their theoretical underpinning. A good example of that is the rule for doubling of consonants (write, writing & wrote but written, betting but beating). I do explain that to good advanced students — and I have never met one who even knew that there was a rule because schools ignore it as being too hard to bother with — but sometimes the explanation is too much for a student to take in.

        Yes, I did mention the McDonald’s slogan.

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        • Thank you. On the matter of omitting the relative pronoun when it’s the subject of the clause, I was struck by this sentence, in a piece of dialogue, in Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Officers and Gentlemen’: ‘It was I detained them.’

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  14. Pingback: Here, There And Everywhere | Caxton

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