Grammar and Beyond #4 – How to Teach the Tricky Grammar of ‘There is / There are’

Nigel Caplan

The existential sentence pattern ‘there is / there are’ is a must for beginning students, even though its grammar is tricky. In today’s Grammar and Beyond post, Nigel Caplan shares some important considerations in treating it.

After my recent column on ‘it’ and ‘this’ as subjects, one of my colleagues asked about the unusual structure ‘there is/are’. Although this is a phrase that is often taught to beginners (‘there is a pen!’), the grammar is actually very strange because an adverb (there) appears to function as the subject. However, the verb agrees with the noun in the complement position (‘there are many problems with this’). Some linguists analyze these sentences as inverted structures (i.e. ‘three people are there’ → ‘there are three people’), which does explain the subject-verb agreement but overcomplicates things for the beginning-level students who are learning it.

The phrase ‘there is/are’ means that something exists. Although it is much more common in speech, ‘there is/are’ also occurs quite frequently in academic writing, where it is often used to introduce a new idea or to start a list. For example:

• There are also studies which show the value of handwritten notes. (new topic)
• There are three ways to reduce air pollution. (list)

You will also see this phrase in summary sentences. For example:

• Overall, there is probably no effect on fuel economy from nitrogen-filled tires.

However, sometimes it is best to avoid using there is/are and write a shorter sentence. For example:

• There are people who say that … → It is said that …
• There are many studies showing that … -→ Many studies have found that …

‘There is/are’ can be used in any tense (e.g. ‘there have been’), but it is most common in the present simple. Modal verbs are useful for hedging claims or expressing hypothetical situations:

• There may be no simple solution to this problem.
• Without this safety system, there would have been far more injuries.

Finally, it is worth noting that a few other verbs can be used in the same grammatical structure, but they are much less frequent: ‘there + exist/remain/arise/occur/follow/ensue’ (Halliday, 1994, p. 142).

The downloadable activity offers more practice with ‘there is/are’.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1994). An introduction to functional grammar (2nd ed.). London: Edward Arnold
Claims about frequency are based on the author’s searches of the Corpus of Contemporary American English.

You can read more grammar advice from Nigel Caplan and the Grammar and Beyond team here.

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