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I've been confused with the "there is/are" expression.

I learnt at school that "A cat is on the table" is an awkward sentence and you should say "There is a cat on the table" instead. Is it really awkward to native speakers?

I've also come across expressions such as

"How many cats are on the table?"

If "A cat is on the table" is incorrect, I'm confident that the question must be "How many cats are there on the table?" Am I wrong? Is the sentence "How many cats are on the table?" grammatical?


How about more than one?

A) Three cats are on the table.

B) There are three cats on the table.

Are they both natural to native speakers?

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    All of these are grammatical, but they are more or less natural in different contexts. "A cat is on the table" would sound natural in response to the question "What is on the table?" If, on the other hand, you were to walk into a room and describe the surprising scene in front of you, "There is a cat on the table!" would be more natural.
    – nschneid
    Oct 23 at 3:01
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    A. There are many cats in the room. Three cats are on the table, one on a chair, the rest on the floor. B. "There are three cats on the table!" (The speaker didn't expect to find any in the room.) Oct 23 at 7:37
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    I was a bit surprised to learn that a cat on the table is apparently an idiom used in Finnish only, meaning that we are about a bring up a delicate and controversial agenda item (for the people sitting at the table to discuss). Undoubtedly counterparts in other languages exist also :-) Oct 23 at 17:57
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    @JyrkiLahtonen In English, you might refer to the "elephant on the room" but that's more like the item everyone has been avoiding rather than delicate or controversial, per se. Oct 23 at 21:52
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    @JyrkiLahtonen There's also an phrase (I think mostly Australian English; or possibly just Boris Johnson's political strategist, who is Australian) that involves a dead cat on a table. It used to mean diverting discourse by introducing a shocking or sensational topic ("throwing a dead cat on the table") to distract from some other more dangerous topic that the thrower wants to avoid. Oct 25 at 10:04
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"A cat is on the table" is completely correct English. It is used when the speaker can assume that the listener knows that something is on the table and is identifying that thing. That is, it is used to answer the question "What's on the table?"

Its use is rare in practice. In real life, either you can't assume that the speaker knows that something is on the table (because they haven't asked) or you can shorten your answer to their question. In the first case you'd use "There is a cat on the table" (since you need to first assert the existence of the cat, and then locate it) In the second case you'd just say "A cat" (Since the location and the verb are implied by the context).

It is, in principle, the same with numbers. If you need to assert the existence of something on the table you'd use "There are..." If that can be assumed, you can say "Two cats are..." In practice you are more likely to use this form, especially if you want to emphasize the number:

There's a cat on the table! What do I do?

Now two cats are on the table!

(By the second phrase the existence of cat has been established, and the focus is on the number which is placed at the front of the phrase)

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    @Kirt Except that's not true. "A cat is on the table" could be acceptable in the first years of primary school. Beyond that age, the only correct answer is simply "A cat" Of course "A cat is on the table" is grammatically correct but even suggesting, let alone preferring that over simply "A cat" will 99% surely be suggested only by a non-native speaker. Oct 24 at 20:25
  • @RobbieGoodwin Did you mean to address this to the post author (James K)?
    – Kirt
    Oct 24 at 22:31
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    @Kirt I meant to address that to whoever suggested ' "A cat is on the table" is completely correct English. It is used when… ' for the simple reason that would only ever be used in special circumstances. Oct 25 at 17:44
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To offer a slightly different perspective to James K's answer (which I fully agree with):

"A cat is on the table" is perfectly grammatical, but it carries an unusual combination of emphasis and connotations that makes it unlikely to be the idiomatic way of phrasing the idea in most contexts:

  • …since "a cat" has an indefinite article, we don't know which cat it is;
  • …but since "the table" has a definite article, we do know which table it is;
  • …also, since "a cat" is fronted, the cat (rather than the table) seems to be the topic of the sentence;
  • …and, since we're not using the "there is" construction, we're not emphasizing the existence of the cat, but rather merely its position on the table.

So we have a certain known table, on which there is some unknown cat, but for some reason the speaker starts the sentence with the focus on the unknown cat instead of the known table, yet doesn't seem to find it remarkable that there is an unknown cat here, but just that it's on the table. Which is kind of weird.

Just having a fronted indefinite noun is slightly unusual in itself, given that other alternatives exist, since it involves starting the sentence by focusing on something unknown rather than something already known to the listener. Usually, given a choice, you'd want to do it the other way around, so as to connect the sentence to something already known from the start.

Typically, when you find an English sentence starting with an indefinite article, that implies that either:

  1. there is no definite noun available that would better serve as the initial focus;
  2. the indefinite noun being introduced now will continue to be the topic of a longer sentence, so it makes sense to focus on it; or
  3. the sentence structure is too rigidly fixed to allow easily fronting anything else.

Examples of cases 1 and/or 3 include sentences like "a cat is an animal" or "a cat caught a mouse", where changing the word order (without switching to passive voice or using some other circumlocution) would change the meaning, or "a cat jumped on the table", where English grammar just doesn't easily permit any other word order.

As for case 2, one could consider a sentence like:

"A sleek black cat is on the table, luxuriously stretched out right in the spot where the sunlight streaming in between the curtains lands, its coal-black fur taking on a gleam of mahogany brown in the bright light, only an occasional movement of the ears or a twitch of the tail tip betraying any awareness of its surroundings."

Here mentioning the cat at the very beginning of the sentence feels a lot more natural, even though it hasn't been mentioned before, since we're both immediately describing it as "sleek" and "black" (thus giving the listener some immediate information about it) and also keeping the focus on it for the rest of the long sentence. The table is merely a minor detail here, so it doesn't necessarily deserve the front position, and if this sentence is part of a longer description of a scene, with several other new things besides the cat being introduced, there's less need for emphasizing the existence of all these things by using "there is".

That said, even my example sentence above could just as well begin with:

"There is a sleek black cat on the table…"

or:

"On the table (there) is a sleek black cat…"

or even:

"A sleek black cat lies sprawled on the table…"

and indeed, depending on the context and the narrative style the writer was aiming for, any of these alternatives might work even better. But at least starting the sentence with "a sleek black cat is on the table" doesn't necessarily feel unnatural or forced in this case.

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    "A cat is on the table" could be used when someone is surprised that there is such a thing. Oct 23 at 15:28
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    "A cat is on the table" strikes me as similar phrasing to Boromir's "They have a cave troll" from LotR. Deadpan (possibly even fatalistic) surprise. Oct 24 at 16:39
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"A cat is on the table" is fine. It's slightly more natural to say, "There's a cat on the table", but neither is awkward.

"How many cats are (there) on the table" is a weird question because I can't imagine a natural situation where someone would ask that. This makes it more difficult to judge if the structure is natural or not.

So, let's change it slightly to, "How many cats are (there) in the back yard?" That sentence, just like your first example sentence, is just fine, and again, slightly more natural with "there".

But let's not stop at statements and questions! There's also negations.

"No cats are in the back yard" sounds very awkward or blunt. Much more natural would be, "There are no cats in the back yard", or "There aren't any cats in the back yard".

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  • Thank you for your comment. How about more than one? Does the same thing apply to "Three cats are in the backyard." and "There are three cats in the backyard"? Do they both sound natural to native speakers?
    – kuwabara
    Oct 23 at 3:29
  • Here is a natural situation; the house has a cat infestation. Knowing how cats on the table means you know how many are still not found. Oct 23 at 11:00
  • Though in answering a question like "How many cats in the back yard, it's more natural to just reply with the number: "None", "Three", "Lots!"
    – jamesqf
    Oct 23 at 16:16
  • "No cats are in the back yard" might be acceptable, but only if you know that there are some cats that you're looking for, and they're just not in the back yard right now. Oct 25 at 14:48
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    Having a friend with several cats in the house (now down to seven) I find "How many cats are (there) on the table" perfectly natural dn plausible. Oct 25 at 17:44
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The sentence "a cat is on the table" is grammatically correct but sounds unusual because you would normally know enough about the cat to be more specific:

  • My cat is on the table.
  • Mittens is on the table.
  • The cat is on the table.

Or so on. By saying "a cat", you imply you don't know whose cat it is, you don't know the name of the cat, and there isn't one specific cat that both you and the person you're speaking to know that you would be referring to. That would be strange, especially when you both do apparently know which table is "the" table; in that case you would normally be surprised by the fact that an unknown cat is on the table, so you would say:

  • There is a cat on the table.

This places the emphasis on the fact that there is a cat at all, rather than the fact that a cat is what's on the table.


All of that said, the phrase "on the table" also has an idiomatic meaning; if something is "on the table" that means some decision needs to be made or discussed, and it has not been ruled out as an option. For example:

Alice: Have you talked to your fiancé about having children?

Bob: Oh, she doesn't want kids, but a cat is on the table.

In this conversation, Bob doesn't literally mean there is a cat on a table, he means that he and his fiancé might get a pet cat as an alternative to having children, but they haven't decided yet.

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To add something whimsical to the already comprehensive answers:

I'm imagining a game of Dungeons and Dragons.

"You are in a room ten feet square. There is a table in the centre of the room. A cat is on the table. The cat speaks to you. ..."

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I really like the question and answers but, as most have suggested, while grammatically correct it is often not the proper way of registering a tangible cat on a real, physical table.

I would like to add that, in case the speaker knows the table but doesn't know or even care about the cat – or cats! – then it can be used to convey exactly that message.

Have you seen Mittens, one of my new cats? She's so adorable!

I don't know? A cat is on the table.

But that's Tabby! You already know her!

Err, right. My mistake.

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Thinking about this as a native speaker, I can offer this thought on a non technical level.

There's a sense in which the given sentence, while grammatically perfectly valid, leaves the listener unsure what they are supposed to do with it.

"A cat" says its unknown to me, or i cant identify it better than this generic description. The cat is the focus of my sentence, because I start with it. So I'm drawing your attention to it. But..... why? For what purpose?

If I meant to simply provide information, I would start with "There is" - to assert a cat exists, before stating its location. But if I'm doing more than that, and drawing your attention to the presence of a cat for some purpose beyond merely providing that information, where is the rest? So it sounds odd for that reason. At face value it's a sentence that asserts (implicitly) existence in order to assert location, but without actually asserting existence first.

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To really address your question as an answer, rather than just a comment...

It is still correct to say "A cat is on the table" if there are many cats on the table. Because it is true if there is 1 or more than 1.

This manner of speaking is often used when some rule has been broken.

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