4

enter image description here

What is the correct usage of article if different objects are stated in a group in a sentence. Particularly:

There IS/ARE a tablet, a cellphone, a ball pen, a reading glass, a cup of coffee and a piece of paper on the table.

Or

There IS/ARE a tablet, cellphone, ball pen, reading glass, cup of coffee and a piece of paper on the table.

Do I have to repeat them again and again or not? Especially if they are all singular.

  • 1
    There ARE a tablet, cellphone, ball pen, reading glass, cup of coffee and a piece of paper on the table. – Michael Harvey Oct 29 '18 at 16:46
  • 1
    Interestingly, you could write the same sentence differently and get much more definitive answers from people. Try this construction of your list for comparison: "A tablet, cellphone, [...] and a piece of paper IS/ARE on the table". I suspect everyone would agree only "are" would be correct. The objects share a state. However, rules about language should probably reflect usage. Even though my example suggests a clear choice between singular and plural, I continue to vote for ambiguity. – Kay V Oct 29 '18 at 23:55
5

Idiomatically, it's quite okay in such contexts to use the relaxed / colloquial contracted form There's with a plural referent, instead of There are (which many would find "awkward" to enunciate as contracted There're). Usually (but not always), this can be partially excused by the fact that the plurality of np's1 that follows is often thought of as a "single interrelated collection of things".

But this usage isn't idiomatically acceptable if you explicitly articulate the full singular verb form is, because that would draw unwanted attention to the verb plurality clash.


As regards repetition of the article in such a "list-type" context, this is purely a stylistic choice. Obviously including the article each time emphasises the "rhythm" of the list - so it feels more like a potentially endless series. Since we know what the first word of the next item will be, we "internally anticipate" it in advance, and tend to end up "half-counting" an extra item after the final thing actually specified. (See @KRyan's comment for other reasons to choose verbosity / brevity.)

Thus if you wanted to emphasise the number of things, you might choose to keep repeating a. But if you wanted to downplay the number of things (All I'm asking for is a name, address, and phone number), you might make the opposite choice.


1 Revisiting this post to improve some clumsy phrasing, I considered replacing np's there with fully-expanded noun phrases. But then realised I wouldn't really be happy with that unless I also changed the verb plurality to ...that follow are often thought of as...

Presumably that's because the plurality of np's is a short enough "preceding referent" for me to lump it all together as a singular verb subject. But it's too much trouble for me to remember that far back with the "extended" version, so I just stick with the immediately-preceding plural phrases.

Which just goes to show there's rules and there's rules - an oddball idiomatic usage usually meaning something like There are many rules, but they're often inconsistent, and not all of them always need to be honoured anyway. And certainly different native speakers will disagree on exactly how far it's "acceptable" for "correct" English to ignore strict logic when it comes to singular and plural verb forms.

| improve this answer | |
  • Could the "There is" in this usage mean "There exists a pen, tablet, ...."? I agree that "There is a tablet..." is much more colloquial ("There are a tablet, iPad, ..." sounds very clunky) (AmE here). Edit: Google nGram somewhat agrees. But that's a broad lookup... – BruceWayne Oct 29 '18 at 18:08
  • 2
    This is a great answer about the plurality of the verb, but it seems to me that the primary interest in the question is about the articles and whether they need repeating here. Could you address that as well? – KRyan Oct 29 '18 at 18:46
  • @BruceWayne: I'm not sure rephrasing to There exists gets us any further (you might as well say There exist two sides to this argument). But the key point is you've reproduced the very usage I'm saying is incorrect - with I agree that "There is a tablet..." is much more colloquial, where I just said you can only use the colloquial singular form if you contract the word "is". – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Oct 29 '18 at 18:49
  • @KRyan: Noted & addressed, ty. Mea culpa. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Oct 29 '18 at 19:12
  • 2
    Excellent, and almost-precisely what I would have said myself. +1. I might suggest that there are other things that you might be trying to emphasize by repeating (or choosing not to repeat) the article, rather than just the number of items. For instance, if you wanted to emphasize the items’ independence, repeated articles are your likely choice. If you wanted to emphasize them as a related collection, you probably would not choose to repeat the article. The possible considerations and implications here are, mostly likely, endless. – KRyan Oct 29 '18 at 19:13
5

FumbleFingers addresses the question of whether to conjugate the verb as singular or plural (answer: either is OK) so I'll take the other part: It's fine to omit repeating articles in casual conversation.

There is a cellphone, tablet, pen, coffee cup, and some other things on the table.

I would include them in writing, unless I was transcribing dialogue.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    I'm a bit shame-faced to have so conspicuously failed to read the actual question. I just got carried away with banging on about the apparent clash of plurality - because I just knew someone would misleadingly overplay the business about it being partially excused by the fact that the plurality of np's1 that follows is often thought of as a "single interrelated collection of things". – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Oct 29 '18 at 19:22
  • ...I don't disagree so far as to downvote your perspective here, but I can't really get my head around the idea that dropping the repeated article like this is somehow "colloquial" and thus to be avoided in (formal?) writing. You can reasonably say that about there's versus there are, but not about the repetition, imho. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Oct 29 '18 at 19:25
  • @FumbleFingers I don't know if I'd call it formal as much as idiomatic. For some reason it sounds fine when spoken, but when written it just seems, well ... lazy, like someone who can't be bothered to properly capitalize or punctuate. It's a style, like the modern "textspeak", but not one that I prefer. – Andrew Oct 30 '18 at 15:30
3

Here is a famous post from the erstwhile ELL stalwart and CamGEL champion F.E. on this exact topic over on English Language & Usage. You'll find that the normal rules do not apply in this situation—whether or not you use there's or there is... :


You should trust your ear. :)

This topic comes up a lot. Your question involves an existential construction.

It is safest (imo) to consider that the dummy pronoun "there" to be the grammatical subject. There are syntactic tests that can be used to sorta figure out the grammatical subject. Both the 1985 reference grammar by Quirk et al., A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, and the 2002 reference grammar by Huddleston and Pullum, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, basically consider that "there" is the grammatical subject.

In Quirk et al., page 1405, in section "The status of existential there as subject", it has:

18.46 The there of existential sentences differs from there as an introductory adverb in lacking stress, in carrying none of the locative meaning of the place-adjunct there, and in behaving in most ways like the subject of the clause, doubtless reflecting the structural dislocation from the basic clause types:

(i) It often determines concord, governing a singular form of the verb (cf 10.34 ff) even when the following 'notional subject' is plural:

  • There's some people in the waiting room. < informal >

occurs alongside:

  • There are some people in the waiting room.

(ii) It can act as subject in yes--no and tag questions:

  • Is there any more soup? There's nothing wrong, is there?

(iii) It can act as subject in infinitive and -ing clauses:

  • I don't want there to be any misunderstanding.

  • He was disappointed at there being so little to do.

  • There having been trouble over this in the past, I wanted to treat the matter cautiously.

Huddleston and Pullum et al. go into this in even more depth, in their section "Evidence that subject function is uniquely filled by dummy it and there" on pages 241-3.

I discussed the above because there are numerous, er, grammatical sources out there that get this wrong.

So, if we consider that the "there" is the subject, then that which is to the right-hand-side (RHS) of the BE verb is NOT the grammatical subject. That RHS has been called a whole bunch of stuff, such as "true subject", "notional subject", "displaced subject", etc. So, there is no such thing as a grammatical rule of subject-verb agreement between the BE verb and the RHS -- because the RHS is not the grammatical subject.

When teachers and "pop grammarians" and pedants say that there must be "subject-verb" agreement between the BE verb and the RHS, they are wrong. It is a bogus rule. It is like the other bogus rules like: "You must not start a sentence with a conjunction", "You must not split an infinitive", "You must not strand a preposition", "You must not use a relative 'that' to refer to a human", etc.

I've seen a lot of bad guidance, er, "rules" getting passed around as to the pseudo-subject/verb agreement. Here's one:

"there is" + < plural noun phrase > is indeed nonstandard . . . but "there's" + < plural noun phrase > should really be characterized, in current English, as merely informal/colloquial, rather than nonstandard.

Let's address this part:

"there is" + < plural noun phrase > is indeed nonstandard

for that evaluation is dubious, obviously. One can easily create contexts and examples to disprove that evaluation. For example, using the plural noun phrase "two hundred dollars",

  • There is two hundred dollars in the man's wallet.

I'd think it'll be quite easy to create a context where that example sentence is acceptable.

Many instructors teach that the verb should be plural or singular depending on what that verb would be in a corresponding sentence where the RHS is the subject. Using the above example:

  • Two hundred dollars is in the man's wallet.

is acceptable and grammatical. (That example uses a subject that is a measure phrase, and this issue is discussed in Huddleston and Pullum et al., CGEL, section "(a) Measure phrases", page 504.)

And so, an existential construction corresponding to that could then be:

  • There is two hundred dollars in the man's wallet.

That sounds fine to me.

When the RHS includes a coordination of noun phrases, things can get confusing. Some usage guides and usage commentators prefer that the BE verb agree with the closest noun phrase for that situation. E.g.

  • There is one fat dog and two skinny cats in the box.

  • There are two skinny cats and one fat dog in the box.

and some still want the plural verb even when the first noun phrase is singular,

  • There are one fat dog and two skinny cats in the box.

Of course, if this is dirtied up with an "or" or "nor" coordination, then existential constructions can really clash with their corresponding versions where the RHS is the subject. E.g.,

  • (Either) One fat dog or two skinny cats are in the box that's sinking in the pond.

  • There are (either) one fat dog or two skinny cats in the box that's sinking in the pond. (ugh)

  • There is (either) one fat dog or two skinny cats in the box that's sinking in the pond.

.

Context is king. For instance,

I come from a small family. There is grandpa, mother, my big sister, me.

Hopefully an "editor" won't dare to mark that use of "There is" -- if the editor did, then that's an instant STET and a request for a different editor.

.

This post is getting long. Let me end it with this following bit of info.

A decent usage dictionary, such as MWDEU or MWCDEU, can provide useful info as to standard usage of the existential construction. In my Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage, entry "there is, there are", on pages 732-3, this is the concluding paragraph:

Jespersen notes that the invariable singular occurs mostly in the colloquial style--speech and speechlike prose--and is generally avoided in the literary style. That observation accords with our evidence. In the more complex constructions, you are best guided by your own sense of what sounds right in the particular context to avoid awkwardness and maintain the smooth flow of the sentence.

Their last sentence basically says it pretty well, imo.

  • 2
    This answer is a very good answer in my opinion. – dan Oct 30 '18 at 13:27
  • This kind of answer is only good for ELUers, not ELLers. I doubt many of the OPs around here would even understand it, quite frankly. Quoting H+ P seems to be a religion around here. – Lambie Oct 30 '18 at 15:00
3

If the items are a series of items in the singular, the verb is singular; there is.

There is a cellphone, tablet and ball point pen on the table. [single items, listed separately, singular verb, no need to repeat the determiner a]

If the items are a plural word, the verb is plural.

There are three objects on the table. [three objects=plural, plural verb]

For items listed separately, the verb is never plural:

There is a boy, a girl and a dog in the garden. [here, a is needed as the people and the dog are different categories, in my opinion]

There are three living beings in the garden.

contractions would be: there's (singular) or they're (plural).

Please note: one hears There's + plural noun, as in "There's people who live around here who think that drunk driving is a sport".

Use that type of construction at your own risk. It is marked as informal but can also sound quite unschooled. For example, "There's chickens in the yard."

| improve this answer | |
  • "There're" <--What's that? That WILL get you mowed down in your English exam!:-) – Araucaria - Not here any more. Oct 30 '18 at 23:37
  • You might have pointed out the typo. I often type fast and don't realize it. Doesn't that ever happen to you? – Lambie Oct 31 '18 at 14:08
0

"There is a tablet and a cellphone" can be interpreted as "There is a table and there is a cellphone", in which case the singular verb is appropriate. However, it can also be interpreted as "A tablet and a cellphone exist", in which case a plural verb would be appropriate. If you don't repeat the article, I would lean towards plural verb. Note, however, that in this case you have "reading glass", which should be "reading glasses". This pushes it even further towards plural.

| improve this answer | |
  • Hello, could you please clarify this "reading glasses" and use it in my sentence. Do you mean there should be an article there when it comes to reading glass? – John Arvin Oct 30 '18 at 13:56
  • 1
    @JohnArvin The item in the picture is referred to as "reading glasses". It's treated as plural (presumably, because there are two pieces of glass). As it's plural, it doesn't need an article. – Acccumulation Oct 30 '18 at 14:41
  • Oh, I thought ''a reading glass" is a singular noun. Wahehe, very well then, reading glasses it is -due to two separate glasses in a frame aren't they. Thx. – John Arvin Oct 30 '18 at 18:14

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.