There Is or There Are for Nouns in a Series?

We all know that when a series of subject nouns are joined by a conjunction, a plural verb is needed. Take this example: Fruit, grains, and vegetables are good for your health. It’s your basic subject-verb agreement. But when we start a sentence with the very common indefinite subject there followed by a series of nouns (e.g., one man and two women), the normal rules go out the window. Should we use there is or there are? Not all style guides and grammarians agree, so what’s best to teach our students?

In honor of Sprout English’s new grammar lesson on There Is / There Are, I decided to create a worksheet for teachers and students who want to elaborate on the two basic rules (there is + singular or uncountable noun and there are + plural noun) by looking at what happens to the verb when it’s followed by nouns in a series. Use this explanation and worksheet to challenge more advanced students, or have it as a follow-up in case any of your students ask about nouns in a series.

A. Singular Verb

Examples:

  • There is a book and a pen on the table.
  • There is an apple, a carrot, and an orange in my bag.
  • There is a boy and three girls in my group.
  • There is sugar and salt on the table.
  • There is a lot of snow and ice on the ground. (Snow is uncountable, so we use is even with the plural quantifier a lot of.)

B. Plural Verb

Examples:

  • There are two cats and one dog in my yard.
  • There are cookies, cake, and pizza on the table.
  • There are many boys and girls to invite.
  • There are several adults and one child at the meeting.
  • There are a lot of rocks and ice on the road.

Practice


Download “There Is / Are” PDF

Note that the serial comma (AKA Oxford comma or series comma—the last comma before “and” in a series) is optional.

Answer Key:  1. There is   2. There are   3. There is   4. There is   5. There are   6. There is   7. There is   8. There is   9. There are   10. There are

Notes

1. This is a case where logic doesn’t prevail and how it sounds to your ear does! This is known as euphony, which Merriam-Webster defines as “pleasing or sweet sound; especially: the acoustic effect produced by words so formed or combined as to please the ear.” (I only recently came across this word and couldn’t resist sharing!)

2. There is is often shortened to there’s in informal speaking and writing. There’re isn’t usually used because it is awkward to say and write (and to me it’s wrong, though some people say it’s possible). I encourage my students to use there’s, but I teach them not to use there’re.

3. For more advanced students, point out that this rule can be used in any tense! (E.g., there is/are, there was/were, there has been/have been.)

4. Some grammar books consider the above rules to be standard. For example, Collins Cobuild English Grammar states “You use a singular form of ‘be’ when you are giving a list of items and the first noun in the list in singular or uncountable.”

5. However, other grammar books state that the above rules are only for informal English. In formal English, you should use the plural verb if there is a series of nouns, even if the first noun is singular. Consider Azar’s Understanding and Using English Grammar, which states: “Sometimes in informal English, a singular verb is used after there when the first of two subjects connected by and is singular. For example: Formal: There are a book and a pen on the desk. Informal: There is a book and a pen on the desk.”

Personally, I say, write, and teach the rules in the boxes above (I’m in the Vancouver, Canada, area). What do you teach your students?

Find our There Is / There Are lesson in the Grammar School section.

     

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Tanya Trusler

Tanya is a freelance editor and writer with an extensive background as an ESL teacher. She edits lesson plans, creates new materials, and writes weekly blog posts for ESL-Library and Sprout English. Her company is Editing to a T. Follow her on Twitter (@tanyatrusler) and Google Plus.

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