Etymology Grammar Usage

There’s a whole lotta grammar goin’ on

Q: Pet Peeve: the hideous and now seemingly universal practice of using the singular “there’s”  (instead of “there’re”) with plural references. Do I have any sympathy? Lost cause, I know.

A: Of course we sympathize! In fact, we’ve written on the blog about this use of “there’s.” But we don’t buy the legitimacy of “there’re” as a contraction.

“There’re” is fine in speech, but what passes in speech doesn’t always make the grade in written English. 

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has entries for all contractions that are considered standard English. There’s no “there’re” there. And M-W is about as descriptive (as opposed to prescriptive) a dictionary as you’ll find.

In our opinion, what we HEAR as “there’re” is actually a phonetically elided “there are.” This is why novelists, for instance, use it in rendering informal speech.

But on to the larger issue, the misuse of “there’s” or “there is” in reference to a plural.

When a statement begins with “there,” the verb can be either singular or plural, as in these examples from Pat’s grammar book Woe Is I:

There is [or there’s] a fly in my soup!” said Mr. LaFong. “And there are lumps in the gravy.”

The choice can be tricky, though, because “there” is only a phantom subject. In the first example, the real subject is “fly”; in the second it’s “lumps.”

Why do so many people resort to “there’s” for both singular and plural?

One reason, according to the grammarian Otto Jespersen, is that people often begin a statement with “there is” or “there’s” before they know how they’re going to finish it.

Although this singular use of “there is” and “there’s” is very common now, it’s not new; it’s been around for a long time.

In fact, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has published references dating back to the late 1500s.

The earliest M-W citation is from the Shakespeare comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost (1595): “Honey, and milk, and sugar: there is three.”

And here’s an example from a 1797 letter by Charles Lamb: “… there is in nature, I fear, too many tendencies to envy and jealousy.”

Another citation is from Daniel Defoe’s novel Moll Flanders (1722): “A lottery where there is a hundred thousand blanks to one prize.”

M-W even cites the lexicographer Stuart Berg Flexner in the journal Righting Words (1987): “…if there’s several ways you can use something before or after the verb.”

The usage guide also says people tend to use “there is” or “there’s” with a plural compound subject when the first part of the compound is singular. For example, “There’s a car and two bikes in the garage.”

We have one more possible explanation why the singular “there’s” is seen and heard so much these days.

People who are contraction oriented may find “there’re” too much of a mouthful (whether in writing or in speech), and turn to “there’s” as the default usage.

The difficulty with “there’re” is no excuse, though. In standard English today, the singular is “there’s” or “there is,” and the plural is “there are.”

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