Recently I have been puzzled by this question below:

There ___ a pen and two slices of cake.

Should I put "is" or "are" for the blank above? Some argued that "is" is correct since the verb depends on the closest noun (in this case is singular), while some argued that "are" is correct since the subject of the sentence is plural.
Personally, I would use "are" as I think the latter explanation is more valid.

Thanks in advance!


1 Answer 1


I would always use 'is' when the first noun in the series is singular or non-count. Some grammar sources support this convention of 'agreement by proximity (nearness)', e.g. Collins Cobuild English Grammar:

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.

Some other sources insist that the above advice is only suitable for informal writing, including Understanding and Using English Grammar, by Betty Schrampfer Azar, who says that the convention of 'notional agreement' applies (singular verb for one item, plural verb for more):

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.

You are very unlikely to find consistent guidance on this topic. Many consider the concepts of notional and proximate agreement to be dubious. Even Merriam Webster admits that notional agreement is not even a rule, rather an attempt to describe why native speakers are often inconsistent on subject-verb agreement.

Whether to call it a matter of preference, or to say that proximal agreement is 'sloppy' depends on how relaxed you are about 'rules'.

My practical advice would be to use a singular verb if the first noun in the series is singular or non-count, because that is what most native speakers would choose as least awkward seeming, unless this offends against some scruples you have, in which case go for plural and be prepared to defend that choice.

See here for a fairly detailed discussion:


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