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I saw this sentence on Internet recently written by a native speaker, so I wondered why native speakers tend to use this grammar.

Explain to me why I should I use "is" instead of "are"? Is it grammatically correct?

"There is rice, meat and tomatoes on my plate"

Why "There are rice, meat and tomatoes on my plate" is not correct?

28
+50

This sentence has three important factors to consider: it is an existential construction, the displaced subject of the sentence is a noun phrase coordination, and the coordination is a list (more than two items).

In this particular case, is would be the safest choice (i.e., least likely to run afoul of any rules), although The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language suggests that are would also be acceptable, due to it being a list.

TL;DR:
CGEL says either is or are is acceptable for your sentence.
Collins COBUILD states explicitly that is should be used.


From the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002):

Typically the subject and verb should agree (pg 499).

There are however "semantically motivated overrides." One such override is when the subject is a coordination ("two or more elements of syntactically equal status... linked by means of a coordinator such as and or or"):

Ch 5, §18.4(a) Coordination with and

In general a subject with the form of a coordination of [noun phrases] linked by and takes a plural verb, as in Mary and John are here, etc. It doesn't matter whether the individual coordinates are singular or plural: the coordination as a whole here denotes a set containing at least two members, and hence takes a plural verb.

There are times though when "the subject is conceptualized as a single unit and this determines the singular verb." One of the examples given is, "Eggs and bacon is my favorite breakfast." In that particular example, "my favorite breakfast can only apply to eggs and bacon as a unit and hence the plural verb is impossible." (see also Ch15 §1.3.2 "Joint coordination", which discusses distributive vs. joint coordination in more depth)

The closest noun is however taken into account sometimes when using or (Ch 5 §18.4(b)) and always taken into account with a negative (Ch5 §18.4(d) and (e)).


The example you've given in the question though, is an existential construction (there is a "dummy pronoun" for the "displaced subject": rice, meat and tomatoes). (pg 241, Ch 4 §3.2.2)

Usually the verb should agree with the displaced subject (see footnote 71 on page 500):

There are tomatoes on my plate.

However, when the displaced subject is a coordination, there is an exception (footnote 21 on page 242). When the coordination consists of only two items (binary coordination) then it is idiomatic for the verb to agree with the first item in the list:

A further complication arises in existentials when the verb is followed by an NP-coordination, as in There was/?were a bottle of wine and several glasses on the table. Were tends to be unidiomatic with an NP-coordination when the coordinate that is adjacent to it is singular, even though the coordinate as a whole (a bottle of wine and several glasses) is plural.

A plural example is given on page 1393 [7i]:

There are good teachers and bad teachers.

The exception to the exception is when the coordination consists of a list (three or more items, aka multiple coordination). The last caveat in footnote 21 states that in such a case,

Plural agreement, however, occurs readily in lists: There are still Brown, Jones, Mason and Smith to interview.

Araucaria found an example on page 1400 demonstrating that a singular verb is also valid with lists (the use of "readily" in the footnote 21 is ambiguous about which is more common or preferred), [29i]:

A: Who was at the party last night? B: There was Mary, Sue, Fred, Matt and Sam.

So, with three items in your displaced subject (rice, meat and tomatoes), you can really choose either is or are (according to CGEL).

If there were only two items in the coordination, then it would be less ambiguous; a singular verb would be preferred/idiomatic. Also, note that a plural verb would not necessarily be ungrammatical, indicated by an asterisk, but merely questionable/unidiomatic, indicated by a question mark (see page xii for those notational conventions).

More information can also be found in Chapter 16 "Information packaging", section 6 "Existential and presentational clauses" on page 1390.


Collins COBUILD English Grammar states that with lists the verb should agree with the first item in the list.

10.50... 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.

  • 1
    In my humble opinion, I believe that this answer overlooks footnote 21 (Ch 4, §3.2.2, page 242). In the text, "As far as the subject-verb agreement rule is concerned, therefore, it is there which counts as subject: the complication is that it inherits its agreement features from the NP it displaces as subject.[21]" – Damkerng T. Sep 17 '15 at 12:11
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    (cont.) Footnote 21: "A further complication arises in existentials when the verb is followed by an NP-coordination, as in There was/were a bottle of wine and several glasses on the table. Were tends to be unidiomatic with an NP-coordination when the coordinate that is adjacent to it is singular, even though the coordinate as a whole (a bottle of wine and several glasses) is plural. Plural agreement, however, occurs readily in lists: There are still Brown, Jones, Mason and Smith to interview." – Damkerng T. Sep 17 '15 at 12:45
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    @DamkerngT. It’s curious that no native speaker would ever say “There ∗is just three things you need to know”, and yet we often enough use there is in other plural situations: “There’s a man and a woman here to see you.” – tchrist Sep 17 '15 at 18:49
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    And would you really say "there are an egg and a tomato on my plate"? I'm betting 90%+ would go for "there is an egg and a tomato on my plate", even though those aren't one unit (substitute 'egg' for 'hammer'). – abligh Sep 17 '15 at 19:29
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    Thank you. I think that confirms my thought that [ X, Y, and Z ] can be considered an NP-coordination, and thus both is and are are possible in the OP's sentence. By the way, curious readers may find this Language Log post interesting: Agreement with nearest always bad?, There [ were (8) / was (8') ] liquor, music, and a strong desire for my body. -- Arnold Zwicky wrote "(8) has the "correct" (plural) agreement with expletive there, but it still sounds weird to me; I'd much prefer (8'). – Damkerng T. Sep 17 '15 at 22:00
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Some sources would say that either version is acceptable; for a deeper discussion of that, you might read this and this.

But there is a "rule" that the verb should match the first item in the list. Here, that first item is "rice," which takes the singular "is." As for why native speakers would do that (which might be a different question than whether it is technically correct), that sounds more natural to us because "rice" by itself would take the singular: "Rice is a good accompaniment to chicken."

For a list starting with a plural noun, we would use the plural form: "There are beets, beans, and an onion in the salad."

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    Please provide a reference for this "rule" that you suggest. I don't agree and wonder where you're getting that. – ErikE Sep 17 '15 at 16:15
  • In fact, here's a counter-example. "The last thing I want to hear is beets and beans falling on the floor." This suggests to me that John B's answer is more accurate. – ErikE Sep 17 '15 at 16:25
  • @ErikE, It was mostly from this ELU post and the sources cited therein: english.stackexchange.com/questions/59808/…. I meant to link to that one, but it appears that I am guilty of having linked to the wrong one. As for your proposed counter-example, I think the subject there is "thing," which takes "is." – vstrong Sep 17 '15 at 17:10
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    You said that the "rule" is that the verb should match the first item in the list. The verb is in my sentence does not match the first word beets, so it is a valid counterexample. In my opinion, what sounds right to native English speakers depends on the education level of that speaker. I care about language and I pay attention, so it jars me when someone says "There's five bananas on the counter". What's correct is "There're five bananas on the counter." I might agree with you that for many people, your "rule" sounds better, but don't call it a rule, even in quotes, because it's not! – ErikE Sep 17 '15 at 17:17
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    Gee whiz. We're just not seeing this the same way, though I'll resist the temptation to send you my school transcripts in self-defense. I do think that your example is different, because the predicate "beets and beans falling on the floor" has already been made single (and so subject to the many-as-one construct discussed in John's excellent answer) by the use of "thing" before the verb. And I don't know anyone who would say "There is five" of anything, including bananas. And if it helps any, I was only trying to assist, not to jar. Sorry to have bothered you! – vstrong Sep 17 '15 at 17:29
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Take a look at this discussion.

It is supposedly more and more common to violate the rules of number in constructs like "there is/are". According to people who know the language better than yours truly, you could say

There's rice, meat ...

and still be fine grammatically. "There is", perhaps not so much.

If you think of the contents of your plate as "the dish" or "the meal", then it is acceptable to use "is" with it. For instance, you could treat "fish and chips" as singular and say

My fish and chips today was tasty!

(although there is definitely more than one chip there, I am sure, because it does say "chips")

To use "are" is more correct perhaps, especially if you name the constituents of your meal, enumerating them to specifically draw attention to their number (which is more than 1 item).

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    In other words, if English is not my mother tongue, I can't be right, yes? Next time specify your discriminatory preferences in your question, please. – Victor Bazarov Sep 16 '15 at 20:37
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    This sentence might be very difficult to identify whether it sounds natural or not for non-native speakers. – user24318 Sep 16 '15 at 20:51
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    @user24318 I'm a native speaker. "Is" sounds "more natural" to me, but I acknowledge that is because "There's x, y, z... on my plate" is a construction I've heard often. I don't really have any explanation as to why. Victor's interpretation, in which you see the list of food items as a single dish (i.e. one noun phrase) instead of separate items, makes the most sense to me. And besides that, vstrong is correct, using "are" directly before "rice" feels unnatural, despite possibly being more correct. – Crazy Eyes Sep 16 '15 at 21:08
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    Both fish and chips was and fish and chips were are well attested. Number agreement with coordinate subjects is a complicated topic. – snailcar Sep 16 '15 at 22:42
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    @snailboat: "My fish and chips were tasty": both the fish and the chips were tasty. "My fish-and-chips was tasty": my meal (which I think of as a single entree, not two separate things), was tasty. I hyphenated to emphasize that the was form sounds natural if fish-and-chips is pronounced as a single thing, preferably with a British accent. (Almost like hotdog vs. hot dog.) Being a Nova Scotian, I've had my fair share of fish and chips, but I don't link them so closely together that I'd personally say were. – Peter Cordes Sep 17 '15 at 3:40
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I think there is some confusion here between "X and Y is/are Z" and "There is/are X and Y on Z"; in the former case 'is/are' should agree with X and Y, but in the latter case 'is/are' should theoretically agree with 'There', though as we'll see this does not always sound right.

First compare:

'My fish and chips was tasty' vs 'My fish and chips were tasty'

Both are acceptable, but mean (to me) something slightly different. The first treats 'fish and chips' as a unit - a single dish, as opposed to them each individually being tasty (as per Victor Barazov's answer). If you said 'my taxi and my plane were late' that's obviously a plural; there's no possibility of '*my taxi and my plane was late'. In this situation (noun / noun-clause in question precedes the verb), this is a simple matter that the verb needs to agree (in terms of singular / plural status) with the noun-clause.

Next we have the conceivably separate point of 'there is / there are'. Let's take an example which is clearly plural, and doesn't fall into the 'fish and chips' category which might in fact be singular (as a dish).

'There is a fly and a cockroach on my plate' vs 'There are a fly and a cockroach on my plate'.

Now, as a native British English speaker, I'd say the former (or more likely contract it to 'There's a fly and a cockroach on my plate'. I can't explain why, and perhaps it's technically wrong, especially as I'd say 'There are three flies on my plate' or 'There are cockroaches on my plate' or 'There are flies and cockroaches on my plate'. But I'd also say 'There is a fly and three cockroaches on my plate', or 'There are three cockroaches and a fly on my plate'. My only weak explanation is that this is a contraction of "There is/are X [and there is/are] Y on my plate"

So to your example:

There is rice, meat and tomatoes on my plate

If "rice, meat, and tomatoes" was a dish, that would be acceptable.

It also might be accepable as 'rice' is singular despite the other nouns meaning there was a plurality of objects (see my inexplicable paragraph),

If it were "There is tomatoes, rice, and meat on my plate" that wouldn't sound right (per my para above), and should be 'are'.

'Are' would be acceptable in any case I guess.

1

The points on subject and verb agreement (along with the possible modification) are really spot on to the difference between "is" and "are". I tend to avoid the way your sentence is constructed though (at least as an American English speaker), mostly because it sounds odd to me from an opinion perspective, but also because "there is" and "there are" tend to make sentences overly wordy:

I am likely to reconstruct the sentence using a different noun object relevant to the situation like:

I have rice, meat, and potatoes on my plate.

or if I intended to keep the sentence about the contents of the plate, I would say something like:

Rice, meat, and potatoes are on the plate.

0

Regardless of the number of items, if you are making a list, then a singular verb is required. As a rule: There is/was meat, vegetables, fruits, etc. If a plural present is used, it won't be a terrible mistake either. It's tolerable in my world.

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To answer the question provided (In the examples provided) either could be used. Generally the US apply plurality to the sentence whereas in the UK we do not. Unfortunately, English has a lot of subtleties and the sentence does not sound correct in the first place to my ear. Most folks would state "I have rice, meat and tomatoes on my plate." thus avoiding this issue in the first place and is neutral. The consequence is that one avoids this question in the first place and all the cultural divergences. And yes I am a native English speaker, I do not speak American. See the point?

You can have even more fun with the Oxford comma - this is whether you use the comma after an "and".

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    The oxford comma goes before the and. – Chenmunka Sep 17 '15 at 10:55
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    You're wrong about this. The only major difference between British and American English usage for plurals is that British English is more likely to use the plural, as it recognises a "corporate plural" that American English does not. The sentence "The government are planning a tax cut" is grammatical in English but not in American. – Mike Scott Sep 17 '15 at 19:19

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