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.