According to subject-verb agreement, you use singular verbs for singular subjects and plural verbs for plural subjects. Now forget all that. When a sentence begins with there (also known as the existential there) the subject isn’t singular or plural — it’s just there. So how do you decide when to use there is or there are in a sentence?
- There is a student in class today.
- There is a coyote in the distance.
- There is an issue with the new irrigation system.
- There is smoke in the air.
Notice the determiner, such as a or one, when the noun is countable (student, coyote, issue). You can replace these determiners or add adjectives — for example, “There is another new student in class today” — and the sentence still uses there is.
When the noun is uncountable (smoke), you don’t need a determiner after is, but you can add one anyway (“There is so much smoke in the air.”)
When writing informally, you can use the contraction there’s instead of there is:
- There’s a student in class today.
- There’s a coyote in the distance.
- There’s an issue with the new irrigation system.
- There’s smoke in the air.
When the noun in the sentence is plural, use there are. For example:
- There are two ways to solve the problem.
- There are people who care about you.
- There are many animals to see at the zoo.
- There are boats on the water.
Because all plural nouns are countable, you can use determiners between there are and the plural noun. For example, “There are many ways to solve the problem” still uses there are.
If there’s is okay to use, what about there’re? It is an actual word, so an editor (or a spellchecker) wouldn’t get upset. But when you say it out loud — “There’re boats on the water” — you may opt for the more pronounceable there are.
Using the existential there seems tricky when you’re also using indefinite pronouns (such as some, a lot, and any), especially when asking a question, After all, both “Is there some left?” and “Are there some left?” sound correct, so which one should you use?
The answer still lies in the noun that the pronoun is replacing. To find the correct usage, simply add the noun back into the sentence.
For example, cake is uncountable, making it singular. If you add cake to “Is there any left,” you get:
- Is there any cake left? (Correct)
- Are there any cake left? (Incorrect)
But if you add the plural noun cookies to “Is there any left,” you need the plural are:
- Is there any cookies left for me? (Incorrect)
- Are there any cookies left for me? (Correct)
You can use the same method for some, a lot, and more, as well as any indefinite pronoun that could describe an uncountable noun or a plural noun.
Those are the basics of there is and there are. But what on Earth do you do with collective nouns like variety, a number, or a collection, which are usually treated as singular nouns, when the nouns they’re describing are plural?
Some collective nouns simply sound better with there is:
- There is a collection of desserts available. (Sounds correct)
- There are a collection of desserts available. (Awkward)
- There is an assortment of desserts available. (Sounds correct)
- There are an assortment of desserts available. (Awkward)
However, other collective nouns sound odd if you don’t use there are:
- There is a variety of desserts available. (Awkward)
- There are a variety of desserts available. (Sounds correct)
- There is a number of desserts available. (Awkward)
- There are a number of desserts available. (Sounds more correct)
If you can’t rewrite the sentence to be less ambiguous, use your preference (or spellchecker) as your guide. Both uses are grammatically correct, but usually, one sounds better than the other.
Some people consider the existential there to be an example of filler writing, which can make your writing sound weaker. Consider these two sentences that say the exact same thing:
- There are three songbirds in the backyard.
- Three songbirds are in the backyard.
Rewriting sentences that begin with there is or there are makes your writing stronger — and it gives you the opportunity to use more active verbs (“Three songbirds chirped happily in the backyard.”) It’s an easy way to improve your writing — and avoid potential grammatical errors, such as mixing up their, there, and they’re, in the future.