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This question might seem a bit of a cliche. I looked for duplicates and found two but the answers were not convincing. I even went through other forums to find similar questions; interestingly the respondents weren't sure at all or gave irrelevant answers. So, I'm going to be clear as much as possible and keep things to the point to get the point I'm looking for.

I know all about singular/plural countable or uncountable thing about these structures and possible grammatical sentences out of them. My question is probably about the register, being more common, expectation, emphasis, or something like that.

Where do native speakers tend to say each of these statements and why?

There is no chair here.

There isn't a chair here.

There are no chairs here.

There aren't any chairs here.

I think there must be something that determines which structure to be used or preferred to the other one. What is that?!

If someone asks me "Why did you say, 'there aren't any chairs here' and not 'there is no chair here'" what should I say?! Why would I choose singular form over plural form?!

Actually a junior language learner asked me that and I wasn't sure how to answer!

  • 2
    Honestly, I don't think there is a correct reasoning. All could be used. I would use "There aren't any chairs here." myself, but native speech patterns are often built from usage observed over time, not necessarily based on specific grammar rules. – user3169 May 8 '16 at 19:43
  • You should say that you were trying to communicate to your addressee that no chair(s) was/were there. Language is about communication. To sit down and try to figure out 147 possible nuances seems perhaps not the best thing you could be doing with the time you have to learn English. Just keep communicating; and especially keep getting exposed to native usage (TV, native speakers) and you'll catch these nuances over time. Besides that, you've overlooked probably the most common construction of all: There's no chair(s) here. – Alan Carmack May 9 '16 at 10:56
  • Native speakers are going to be hard pressed to figure out the things you are asking here. We just employ these various alternatives when they seem most appropriate or natural to do so. Most of the time we don't analyze our own language use, especially when talking about half a dozen similar alternatives, most of which are mix and match. I'm certainly not going to try to figure out when I use one or another of them because there are too many possibilities. Finally, frankly I think this is more about language usage (ELU) than language learning (ELL). – Alan Carmack May 9 '16 at 11:04
  • Thanks I guess I got my anwser after reading all of yours. An upvote for all because I can't really choose the best. – Yuri May 9 '16 at 18:50
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    Many times it is the rhythm or the emphasis or the way some words are just easier to roll off the tongue. You mentioned some of that. The reality is probably a lot of those factors together. – shawnt00 May 10 '16 at 1:09
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Any of those sentences could be used and seem completely natural in different contexts. You choose each among those expressions based on what you want to communicate.

Are you talking about one chair or many chairs? That (obviously) determines whether you choose the plural or not. If I asked about multiple spoons, but you answered me with a singular response, it would seem odd. For example, if I said "Would you get me two spoons from the drawer please?" and you responded "There's no spoon here." If I ask about a singular and you responded with a plural it wouldn't be as odd. If I say "Go tell Joe he has a phone call." you could say "There are no Joes in this room - I don't know who you're talking about." even though it's more likely you would say "Joe isn't here."

Are you talking about one specific chair or just any chair? That determines whether you say "there is no chair" or "there isn't a chair". This can be tricky because it really depends on what is in your mind when you say it, and not necessarily anything that has been said earlier. I could say "When you get there, sit in the chair." and if there are only couches when you get there, you might tell me "There is no chair here." (the specific chair that you were going to sit in isn't there) or "There aren't any chairs here" (you looked for any chair to sit in and there were none available).

In the movie the Matrix, there is a scene where a boy is bending a spoon with his mind and he says that to do that first you must realize there is no spoon. He is speaking about a specific spoon. If I asked you to get me a spoon from a drawer that had no spoons in it, you could say "there isn't a spoon in here (for me to give you)." or "There aren't any spoons in here, just forks." or "There's no spoon in here (the specific spoon you want isn't here)." All of those statements are fine and sound natural.

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So much would depend on the intonation of the sentence. Intoned in a certain way, the statements could take on specific meaning:

There's no chair here.

There used to be a chair here. But it's not here now.

You said there was a chair here. But I don't see one.

There isn't a chair here.

You might think a place like this would have quite a few chairs, but I don't see a chair anywhere. Strange.

Where have all the chairs gone?

Something other than a chair is here.

By no means am I suggesting that this is the only way to understand these sentences.

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If you are expecting just one chair to be there, you would say

There is no chair here.
There isn't a chair here.

So if somebody says "this is your desk", and there is no chair placed at that desk, you might use one of these.

If you are expecting several chairs, you would say

There are no chairs here.
There aren't any chairs here.

So if somebody says "the meeting is in this room," and there is a table but no chairs you might use one of these.

There isn't any significant difference between the sentences in each pair.

For a more extreme example we would say

There was no moon in the sky,

and not

*There were no moons in the sky,

Similarly, we would say

There are no snakes in Ireland,

and not

*There is no snake in Ireland.

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