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verb agreement: sentences beginning with there

A present-tense verb (as well as a simple past form of the verb be) must agree in number with its subject. That is, the verb must be singular if its subject is singular, and plural if its subject is plural.

In most English sentences, the subject comes before the verb. But sentences beginning with there is or there are follow a different order: the subject comes after the verb is or are. Here is an example:

  • There is the bus!

The subject in this sentence is bus. Both bus and is are singular, so they agree. (A more colloquial way to write this sentence is to use the contraction for is: There’s the bus!)

Here’s another example:

  • There are 20 books for sale.

Books is the subject of this sentence, and it’s plural, so we need the plural verb are to agree with the plural subject.

You can also apply this rule to there was and there were; there seems/appears to be and there seem/appear to be; and here is and here are.

  • There was an odd smell in the room.
  • There were three bonfires burning in the field.
  • There seems to be a crack in the vase.
  • There appear to be several errors in the report.
  • Here is the map.
  • Here are your keys.

Exception

An exception occurs when there is a list of nouns as subject. Logically, a list of two or more items would be plural and would therefore require a plural verb:

  • There are a punch bowl, finger foods and a cake on the table.

But it sounds odd to have are next to the singular noun phrase a punch bowl. The verb is would sound better:

  • There is a punch bowl, finger foods and a cake on the table.

So which of these sentences is correct? The answer is both. The first one follows the standard rule. But the second is also accepted, and many writers would prefer it because it sounds more natural. Therefore, when the subject after there is or there are is a list of items, you can make your verb agree with the first noun in the list.

Note: Although there is or there are constructions are useful in some situations, some writers prefer to reword the sentence. If you decide to reword and put the list before the verb, you must make the verb agree with the plural list (and not just the closest item):

  • A punch bowl, finger foods and a cake are on the table.

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