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This question is also open on EL&U: “There Is”/“There are” depends on plurality of the first list element or not?

Considering the amount of controversy it aroused, I believe it's past "Learners'" level.


An edit was suggested to my sentence.

There was were an orange, some grapes, two apples and a small pile of cherries on the plate.

In my native language plurality of the verb always follows plurality of the first element on the list. There were an orange,... sounds awkward to me, no matter what follows up. My simple solution was reordering:

There were some grapes, an orange, two apples and a small pile of cherries on the plate.

But that's not the first time I faced this situation and I'd like to know what the rules of grammar say about that — was my editor overzealous or am I trying to copy rules of my language that don't apply in English?

  • 3
    See english.stackexchange.com/questions/59808/… — ELU agrees with you. – Gilles Nov 7 '13 at 15:28
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    I don't think that question is the same. Here we are talking about a compound noun. There it is talking about several independent sentences turned into clauses and combined into a single sentence by elision. Consider "There are a dog and a cat on the roof." Clearly plural "are" is called for. But "There is a dog on the roof and a cat in the window." Now we use the singular "is" because it is no longer a compound subject but two separate subjects of two separate clauses. – Jay Nov 7 '13 at 16:14
  • @Gilles The example you've pointed to is different than this one. It's using or instead of and, which makes it completely different. At least that's what the answer with the most votes is suggesting, which I'd be inclined to agree with. – Giambattista Nov 29 '13 at 0:08
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    I just find this. Oddness When You Start a Sentence with "There Is" – 243 Dec 2 '13 at 6:33
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    I am voting to close because this question has an exact duplicate on EL&U, and new answers should be posted on only one site or the other. Closing the question will prevent new answers from being posted here, fulfilling that requirement. – snailboat Dec 9 '13 at 17:32
-8
+100

Were is absolutely correct here. The reason that it's were and not was is that it's a compound subject (which is indicated by and).

Your editor has got a sharp eye. It's definitely awkward, but it's technically correct, which is why you should, as you've suggested, simply re-write the sentence so that the singular item is not the first item in the list (this obviously won't work though if you have all singular items in your list, which I'll explain in a bit).

English grammar does not dictate--to this native speaker's recollection--that the first item in a list indicates the grammatical number. I will say, however, that there were an orange, grapes, two apples ... sounds awful to my ear (and I suspect that this is true with most speakers).

I also think that most speakers make this error without realizing it with expletive constructions (i.e. sentences that are constructed in the order of there/it + be + subject, rather than the more common, active voice, Subject-Verb-Object order). It's generally best to avoid expletive constructions whenever possible (it's not always possible to do so, but in your example, there is unnecessary)

The indefinite article an is ordinarily a marker of singularity, which makes it sound as if it should be was, but with compound subject, that's not the case. It still would be were even if it were**: There were an orange, grapes, an apple, and a cherry [ALL] piled on the plate. Or, even better: An orange, grapes, two apples, and a small pile of cherries were all on the plate.

If the sentence were**, There was an orange, and nothing more, than was would be correct. But because you're talking about multiple subjects that are/were grouped together, the subject is plural.

There are four objects in this list--that's counting the grapes and cherries each as a single unit; technically, there are more--so there's no question that it's plural. This isn't a one-or-the-other situation; it's collective.

A general rule of thumb would be that when you're using and as a conjunction, it's a compound/plural subject, and thus indicating a plural form of the verb. If instead you're using or, then it's singular, regardless of the article.

**I'm using were in two of the above sentences with a singular subjects because I'm using the subjunctive mood; otherwise it'd be was. That's the only time it's ever correct to use were with a singular subject.


From Garner's Modern American English Usage, 3rd Ed.:

Language-Change Index

  • there is (or there's) with a compound subject whose first member is singular <there's an outhouse and a sump pump out back>: Stage 4

Key to the Language-Change Index:

Stage 4: The form becomes virtually universal but is opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts (die-hard snoots).

Garner's Stage 4 Analogies:

School-Grade Analogy: Grade B

Golf Analogy: Bogey

Olfaction Analogy: Vaguely odorous

Skill-Level Analogy: Amateur

Military Analogy: General discharge

Etiquette Analogy: Elbows on table

Traffic-Penalty Analogy: Warning ticket

School-Discipline Analogy: 1-hour detention

Moral Analogy: Peccadillo

Parliamentary-Discipline Analogy: Warning

As you can see, this is not quite standard yet, but Garner notes that using there with a compound subject is widespread nevertheless. He notes that purists still object to it, and to my interpretation, that it's technically incorrect. Therefore, while it'd be perfectly acceptable in speech, it shouldn't be used that way formally. Very careful speakers/writer's will object to this usage in writing.


Diana Hacker And Nancy Sommers also indicate that singular compound subjects take plural verbs in expletive constructions in Rules for Writers. They agree that in sentences beginning with there be--i.e., when the subject follows the verb in a declarative statement--the subject is plural if it's a compound subject, even if the first item in the list is singular, and therefore, it's got to take a plural verb

From Rules for Writers, 7th Ed.:

21g Make the verb agree with its subject, even when the subject follows the verb.

Sentences beginning with there is or there are (or there was or there were) are inverted; the subject follows the verb.

There was were a social worker and a neighbor at the meeting.

The subject, worker and neighbor, is plural, so the verb that follows must be were

Occasionally you may decide to invert a sentence for a variety of effect. When you do so, check to make sure that your subject and verb agree.

Of particular concern is are penicillin and tetracycline, antibiotics.

The subject, penicillin and tetracycline, is plural, so the verb must be are.


From The Chicago Manual of Style Online, 16th Ed.:

5.32Exceptions regarding pronoun number

There are several refinements to the rules stated just above: (1) When two or more singular antecedents denote the same thing and are connected by and, the pronoun referring to the antecedents is singular {a lawyer and role model received her richly deserved recognition today}. (2) When two or more singular antecedents are connected by and and modified by each, every, or no, the pronoun referring to the antecedents is singular {every college and every university encourages its students to succeed}. (3) When two or more singular antecedents are connected by or, nor, either–or, or neither–nor, they are treated separately and referred to by a singular pronoun {neither the orange nor the peach smells as sweet as it should}. (4) When two or more antecedents of different numbers are connected by or or nor, the pronoun’s number agrees with that of the nearest (usually the last) antecedent; if possible, cast the sentence so that the plural antecedent comes last {neither the singer nor the dancers have asked for their paychecks}. (5) When two or more antecedents of different numbers are connected by and, they are usually referred to by a plural pronoun regardless of the nouns’ order {the horses and the mule kicked over their water trough}. (emphasis added)

  • 1
    "most speakers make this error" is a linguistic oxymoron. What most speakers do is, by definition, not the error. – Kaz Nov 29 '13 at 0:46
  • 2
    @JohnQPublic That sentence does not use the "there + be" construction. – Kaz Nov 29 '13 at 1:17
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    @Gilles I'm not being condescending. I'm sorry, but if you think there is in fact a dummy subject, then you simply do not understand this construction. The subject in English must always agree with the verb, no matter what. It's the only widely accepted rule of English grammar. It sounds awful, but the exception to the rule is that it must be revised. Are you telling me that you prefer, There was two oranges and an apple? Rearranging the subjects does not change their number. You can only reduce to the singular verb when all items are singular, and then it's just a reduction. – Giambattista Nov 30 '13 at 3:34
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    -1 for posting an incredibly long image of text, of which the relevant section comprises perhaps three sentences, without a cogent summary of the relevant section. – Peter Shor Nov 30 '13 at 18:15
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    There are currently 11 downvotes on this answer, one of which is now mine. – Mari-Lou A Dec 29 '16 at 6:57
9
+200

I would like to add this interesting information, which is highly related to this question, and even more suitable for ELTs and ELLs.

This following was taken from the article: Joybrato Mukherjee (2006): "Corpus linguistics and language pedagogy: the state of the art - and beyond", Corpus Technology and Language Pedagogy: New Resources, New Tools, New Methods, eds. Sabine Braun, Kurt Kohn & Joybrato Mukherjee. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 5-24. 337-354.

Here language specialists with access to a wide range of large corpora of English (including the Bank of English, the BNC and TeleCorpora with Hong Kong English) answer linguistic questions that are put forward by English language teachers. The following two questions refer to the choice of the verb form after coordinated subject noun phrases:

Teacher 4:
Hello! Which one is correct?
There is a man and a woman outside.
Or
There are a man and a woman outside.
Please give some comments, any one.

Teacher 5:
Hi,
What should we use in the following sentences? Is or are?
1. There ..... an apple and some oranges on the table.
2. There ..... some oranges and an apple on the table.
Thanks. It seems to me that 'are' is okay in both. Is there any rule here?
(Tsui 2004: 50)

These questions exemplify the usefulness of the language corner because very often English language teachers as non-native speakers feel insecure about specific aspects of English usage. The following reply was given by TELEC staff members:

TELEC staff responded to the teachers' questions by pointing out that usually the singular form of 'be' is used when the first noun that follows is singular and the plural form of 'be' is used when the noun group after it is plural (see also Collins Cobuild English Grammar, p.416). However, a search through the corpus does show an instance of the following:
According to PACE, suspects can only be detained at designated police stations where there are a custody and a reviewing officer.
(Tsui 2004: 51)

Apart from the fact that teachers are provided with a general rule of thumb, it is also highly significant that the grammatical rule which is also included in the Collins COBUILD English Grammar does not cover every case. In fact, the analysis of corpus data reveals that the scope of virtually all grammatical rules is limited and that there is a remainder of instances which deviate from the rules.
It is very important to make English language teachers fully aware of the fact that with regard to many forms and structures "the question is not about possibility but about probability of usage"
(Tsui 2004: 51)

(emphasis mine)

Here is the relevant part of the mentioned page in the Collins COBUILD English Grammar,

verb agreement
10.50 Usually a plural form to 'be' is used if the noun group after it is plural.
There were two men in the room.

You use a singular form of 'be' when you are giving a list of items and the first noun in the list is singular or uncountable.
There was a sofa and two chairs.
There is grief in his face and reproach at the injustice of it all.

Note that you use a plural form of 'be' in front of plural quantifiers beginning with 'a', such as 'a number of', 'a lot of', and 'a few of'.
There were a lot of people camped here.

You also use a plural form of 'be' in front of numbers beginning with 'a', such as 'a hundred', 'a thousand', and 'a dozen'.
There were a dozen reasons why a man might hurry from a bar.

which confirms the article. The example "There was a sofa and two chairs." is the recommended usage for the students, according to the grammar book.

In my opinion, the most important point, at least for English language teachers, is to fully aware of the fact that with regard to many forms and structures "the question is not about possibility but about probability of usage".

  • I'd like to make a few quick points. This is in reference to Hong Kong English, which is a very specific dialect. And I very much dislike this method of teaching English; it's what gives rise to the monstrosity that is EU English. Anyway, from your source: However, a search through the corpus does show an instance of the following: According to PACE, suspects can only be detained at designated police stations where *there are a custody and a reviewing officer. If you want to add a new perspective, that's fine; but I don't see this as being definitive. – Giambattista Dec 8 '13 at 18:54
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    @JohnQPublic It includes HK English, but the Bank of English and the British National Corpus are certainly not corpora of HK English. – snailboat Dec 8 '13 at 19:00
  • @snailboat Fair enough. I'd just read the footnotes regarding Hong Kong. I think what I'm trying to make clear is that I welcome new perspectives, but we've got to make a dialectal distinction here, because AmE does not allow this usage formally, and it's unlikely to appear in an edited publication in the US. Perhaps this is not the case for the Commonwealth countries. That's all. And I'm hoping to see some more definitive sources. I actually wouldn't mind being wrong about this question. It'd be interesting to see a wider array of sources since it's still not settled. – Giambattista Dec 8 '13 at 19:13
  • Oh I hadn't realized that you'd offered an additional bounty. I was wondering why this was still so active. Sorry. – Giambattista Dec 8 '13 at 19:18
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    @JohnQPublic I just offered it for fun, and as it happens, it was after DamkerngT posted this answer. I'm enjoying watching the discussion ;-) In any case, the same formality distinction is made in AmE and BrE, as far as I'm aware. The hypothesis put forward by the sociolinguists Meechan & Foley (1994) is that it results from prescriptive influence in schools, and that it runs counter to our natural inclination which appears chiefly in informal registers; they found that greater levels of education are associated with higher levels of concord. – snailboat Dec 8 '13 at 19:26
3

Your editor is not right.

The reason is that in the "there were" construction, we can regard the items on the plate to be independently there of each other.

That is to say, the sentence is a condensation of these sentences:

There was an orange on the plate; there were some grapes on the plate; there were two apples on the plate; and there was a small pile of cherries on the plate.

When we shorten this to one sentence, we can only have one copy of the verb "to be" in its past tense form. So we have to choose whether it gets to be the singular "was" or plural "were".

The principle which guides the choice is probably euphony (what sounds good), and euphony dictates that we choose the form which agrees with the first element of the list. The first element is singular, and so the verb is was.

This is actually quite a difficult thing to explain (snailboat, please help!): it has to do with euphony, and with whether the items in the list behave as a group or independently, and it has to do with the "three is" construction.

It does not yield easily to a simplistic "one size fits all" prescriptive rule for so-called proper writing and speaking:

Paul and Janet { was * | were } at the party.

Pizza and beer { was | were } served at the party. [Was as separate items; were, as a unit; either way is okay.]

There { was | were* } pizza and beer served at the party. [The "there is" construction seems to rule out regarding items as a group!]

Were Bob and Mike at the party? Let me think, no. Wait, yes there { was | were? } Bob and Mike at the party!

It { was | were* } Johnson and Dougherty who went inside to rob the bank; Michaelson waited outside in the getaway vehicle.

Let's look more closely at this word "there", which seems to serves as an anticipatory pronoun for a place. What place is that? The place "on the plate". We can rewrite the sentence to eliminate "there", by relocating "on the plate" to the front. But now we can use "was" or "were"!

There On the plate { was | were } an orange, some grapes, two apples and a small pile of cherries. on the plate.

This sentence can be regarded as a topicalization of the canonical sentence:

An orange, some grapes, two apples and a small pile of cherries were on the plate.

There seems to be some rule that when this topicalization takes place, the possibility for euphonic agreement is introduced between was and the first element of the list.

When the word "there" is introduced, it seems to cement this need for agreement with the first list item. Once we have "there", we can move the location "on the plate" around within the sentence quite freely:

On the plate, there was an orange, some grapes, two apples and a small pile of cherries.

There was, on the plate, an orange, some grapes, two apples and a small pile of cherries.

There was an orange on the plate, and some grapes, two apples and a small pile of cherries.

There was an orange and some grapes on the plate, and two apples and a small pile of cherries.

It seems like "there" is not simply a placeholder for "on the plate", but a special construction.

One last note. In North America, at least, there is a widespread use of using a singular form like "there is" and "there was", without regard for the subject item or items, and this "there is" is often shortened to "there's":

There's three apples on the table!

Where? There isn't any!

This is quite widespread, used by diverse people all over; it is not a dialect that is particular to some identifiable social group or small geographic area.

There seems to be a pressure in the language to allow "there is", regardless of how many things are in the subject list and whether the first one is plural. In perhaps another hundred years, "there is" may come to be completely accepted as basically giving the situation of being. In other words, "There's three apples on the table" can be framed as "there is a situation of existence, involving three apples being on a table."

  • 1
    On the plate was an orange, some grapes, two apples and a small pile of cherries. That's in passive voice. The subject of the sentence is still fruit. Therefore, it's still were. – Giambattista Nov 29 '13 at 1:39
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    @JohnQPublic Passive voice requires "be + participle". The fruits are actively being on the plate. Passive is something like: "an apple was placed on the plate by John", to which the active is "John placed the apple on the plate". – Kaz Nov 29 '13 at 1:47
  • @Kaz You're right about passive voice, but you're wrong about the verb. It's an inverted sentence. I knew that on the plate was not the subject, which is why I said passive voice at first. But you're right that this is not a case of an object acting on a subject as is the case with passive constructions. As soon as I read your comment, I realized I'd made an error. But that doesn't make you correct. On the plate is a a prepositional phrase, so it cannot be the subject. – Giambattista Nov 29 '13 at 1:57
  • I also neglected to mention that be is not required for passive constructions. They're sometimes constructed with get and less often with have. Passive is simply O-V-S. It requires an auxiliary, but that auxiliary does not have to be be. – Giambattista Nov 29 '13 at 19:32
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    I want to disagree with your comment on the use of "there is" in North America. I would never say "There is two apples on the table", and I think most educated people would say that is ungrammatical. But I would say "There's two apples on the table". What is going on is not the use of "there is" for plurals, but the contraction of "there are" to "there's". A similar thing happens with "aren't". People say "aren't I?", but not "are I not?". This is because "am not" is contracted to "aren't" in some situations. The same here. If people use "there is many", they're uncontracting "there's". – Peter Shor Dec 7 '13 at 17:49
2

1a) Twenty-five years ago there used to be two cinemas in the village where I lived.

1b) Twenty-five years ago there were two cinemas in the village where I lived.

2a) Twenty-five years ago there used to be a nursery, a primary school and a middle school.

2b) *Twenty-five years ago there were a nursery, a primary school and a middle school.

Sentence 2b) for me is just plain wrong. Just like the OP's example, where an orange, two apples and some grapes were all fruit; in my list there are three different types of schools. (Just now I used a plural verb because I grouped the three institutions together and classified them as schools.) I could have written the following:

3a) Twenty-five years ago there were three schools in the village where I lived.

In the above sentence, I made a generalisation, the three different types of institutions are indeed schools but in the village where I lived each one catered for a different age group. They had a separate identity and were different from each other.

In the same vein, one orange is not two apples nor some grapes; An orange is therefore singular, the verb should agree with its subject. It is considered grammatically incorrect to say and write: "*There are an orange". Similarly, I would argue, the same logic applies to a list of nouns.

There is an orange, a small pile of cherries and (there are) two apples.

unless you invert the order:

There are two apples, a small pile of cherries and (there is) an orange.

At any rate, back to the schools in an Italian village...

Twenty five years ago there was a nursery school (Preschool), a primary school (Elementary school) and a middle school.

In other words, there was a school for infants, one for children aged between 6 and 11, and a third one for students aged between 10 and 13. There was a school for each age group.

Let's include some illustrations to clarify.

enter image description here

Nobody is going to disagree with either of these.

enter image description here

So why is there any difference if I include a list of objects in the singular?

  • There is a book, a pen, a pencil, a rubber, and a sharpener on the table.

What if I add a plural noun to that list?

  • There is a book, a pen, a rubber, a sharpener and two pencils on the table.

Placing the plural noun, two pencils, at the end of the list makes sense. No one is going to believe there is only one object on the table because the verb is singular, but we do know for certain there is one book, one pen, one rubber, etc.

The website where I borrowed these images, conveniently avoided the issue of stating whether a list containing singular nouns should have the verb in plural. However, it is worth reading because it does explain subject verb agreement well.

An authoritative source for the bounty offerer might be the BBC.

subject-verb agreement: there is / there are

The questioner poses this problem to the expert:

And why then do we say:

There is a chair and a table in this room NOT There are a chair and a table in this room?

Roger Woodham replies:

there is / there are

In your example of there is, Tanya, it is as if the items are being counted separately:

There’s a chair and there’s a table in the room SO there’s a chair and table in the room.

But note:

There are three chairs and a table in the room.

There’s a table and three chairs in the room.

The general rule is that the verb form matches the item(s) that it is adjacent to:

  • Either the accused or the witnesses were lying. They couldn’t both be telling the truth.
  • Either the witnesses or the accused was lying. They couldn’t both be telling the truth.

Note that we do not usually begin sentences in English with an indefinite noun phrase. We could say:

  • A knife and (a) fork were on the table.

But we usually don’t. If we want to say that something exists, we usually start the sentence with the ‘empty’ grammatical word there and say:

  • There’s a knife and (a) fork on the table

I think the BBC and I are in agreement. :)


A second and authoritative source

From Advanced Grammar in Use. A self-study reference book for advanced learners of English by Martin Hewings, published in 1999 by Cambridge University Press.

Unit 115 page 230 (emphasis not mine)

If the noun after be is singular, the verb is singular; if the noun is plural, the verb is plural:

  • There is a very good reason for my decision.
  • There were too many people trying to get into the football stadium.

However, in informal speech we sometimes use there is before a plural noun:

  • 'Anything to eat?' 'Well, there's some apples on the table.'

If the noun phrase consists of two or more nouns in a list, we use a singular verb if the first noun is singular or uncountable, and a plural verb if the first noun is plural:

  • When I opened the fridge there was only a bottle of milk, some eggs, and butter.
  • When I opened the fridge there were some eggs, a bottle of milk, and butter

.

-4

"Were" is correct. There are many things on the table, and so a plural should be used.

Switch around the word order. You wouldn't say, "An orange and an apple WAS on the table." You would say, "An orange and an apple WERE on the table", because there are two things.

If elements of the subject are linked by "or", then if all the elements are singular we use the singular. "An apple or an orange WAS on each table." If all the elements are plural we use the plural. "Two apples or three oranges WERE on each table." This makes sense because if there are two singular nouns linked by OR, we are only getting one of them, so it should be singular. If there is a mix of singular and plural, the rule is that the verb matches the noun that is closest to it. "An apple or two oranges WERE on each table." "Two apples or an orange WAS on each table." "On each table was an apple or two oranges." "On each table were two oranges or an apple."

  • Update *

After reading a lot of the discussion and comments, it appears to me that a lot of the discussion here centers around, not the use of the construction "there are X and Y" as opposed to "X and Y are ...", but rather to the plurality of the individual components X and Y.

That is, if the sentence was, "There are two oranges and an apple on the table", I think most of the posters here agree that "are" is correct. They would not say, "There is two oranges and an apple on the table." So the real issue is: when there is a subject consisting of two nouns joined by "and", does it take a singular verb, a plural verb, or a verb whose number is determined by the first noun?

If that's the question, every source I have ever seen says that such a compound subject takes a PLURAL verb. For example, http://www.towson.edu/ows/moduleSVAGR.htm says, "Two or more singular (or plural) subjects joined by and act as a plural compound subject and take a plural verb (singular + singular = plural)." And this makes logical sense: if there are two things, then it's plural. Whether it's two apples, or an apple and an orange, either way it's two things.

Yes, it sounds strange to some people's ears to hear "There are an orange and two apples", because "there are an orange" would be incorrect. But the sentence is NOT "There are an orange", it is "There are an orange AND two apples".

  • 4
    The question is about “there is/are X and Y”, which is not necessarily the same as “X and Y is/are”. – Gilles Nov 29 '13 at 0:19
  • 1
    @Gilles Actually, you're wrong. They are the same. If you do not understand this, refer to Kaz's remarks regarding there was/were and the word there. You have a subject, a verb, and a prepositional phrase with or without there. There is simply a placeholder, as Kaz pointed out, in expletive constructions, so there's only one possible verb choice, and that's were. – Giambattista Nov 29 '13 at 2:53
  • 1
    Perhaps this is the point where there was confusion. Yes, in both, "There is an apple on the table" and "An apple is on the table", the subject is singular, and so the correct verb is "is". If we said, "Two apples are on the table" or "There are two apples on the table", in both cases the subject is plural, and so the correct verb is "are". – Jay Dec 2 '13 at 19:02

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