"There is" versus "There are"

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I recently took a grammar test for an editing position. One of the questions on the test required the correct choice of "there is" or "there are." The test scorer marked this as my only error on the four-page, multiple choice/spelling/writing test.

Following is the question. Please tell me I have not been in error all these years.

1. is/are There ______ paper and water on the floor.


Now, this is obviously a poorly written sentence. Still, the answer would have to be "are," as the speaker must anticipate the ending of the sentence and the two subjects noted. The test scorer told me that "There" is the subject and therefore takes the singular form of the verb.

Will someone please respond in a clear way as to why "is" isn't possibly the correct answer? Once I've got the job, I'd like to approach the test scorer and have her re-think the answer. Or, maybe, the question : )

Thanks!


Lori
 

David L.

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Use 'There is..." when the noun that follows is singular, and "There are..." when it is plural:

"There is/there's a pen and two pencils on the desk."
"There are two pencils and a pen on the desk."

So - "There is paper and water on the floor."
We often use contractions in colloquial speech, such as 'there's' for 'there is'. This makes it quick and easy to say things like:
"Hey! There's a car in my parking spot."

Trouble is, there's no contraction for 'there are' : there're ????
So, even when the following noun is plural, colloquially we tend to say:
"There's a few people I'd like you to meet."[/COLOR

re The test scorer told me that "There" is the subject and therefore takes the singular form of the verb.

Take heart: if your quote is accurate, the test scorer may know the correct answers to the test, but obviously not the grammatical reasons why.:)
 
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Pedroski

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The sentence is actually:
'Paper and water are on the floor. '
English changes such sentences using an existential 'there'. In such sentences the form of 'be' used is chosen to agree with the logical subject not with the existential there.

There is a fly in my soup.
There are two flies in my soup.

There are two things on the floor.
There are paper and water on the floor.

If you say There is paper and water on the floor, you are saying paper and water is one thing. Or you mean There is paper. And water (missing is) on the floor, which of course you don't mean!
 

David L.

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I still hold to what I have said.
I did think (at the time) that the two items on the floor were not related: that is, they were two completely separate items; but Pedroski has introduced the next step: considering two items mentioned in a sentence as one entity/unit.

In that case, the sentence might be, 'there's a mess on the floor - there's/there is paper and water all over the place' - still a
the singular 'is'.
 
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Pedroski

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The only way I see you being able to use 'is' is if you allow an ellipsed 'there is' before water. Otherwise you are saying 'Paper and water is' We can't have that now, can we? We are not George Bush nor Sarah Palin!
 

David L.

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No, teacher, we can't. Mummy told me I mustn't, because then we would be pointing to them, and saying,
"(The) paper and water are there, and (the) paint is over there."
where 'there' is not 'existential', indicating the fact that these 'exist', but means 'in, at, or to that place or position'.

You've turned an existential use on its head!
 
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Tdol

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The only way I see you being able to use 'is' is if you allow an ellipsed 'there is' before water. Otherwise you are saying 'Paper and water is' We can't have that now, can we? We are not George Bush nor Sarah Palin!

Well, yes, we can. Simple mathematics is not always the answer as there can be other factors, and proximity often determines the choice of verb and before a singular noun people often use a singular verb, even though there may be more than one noun in the sentence.
 

David L.

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Tdol: You do so bring that singular note of moderation to bear on a discussion, that like some single-span bridge in music, whence over troubled waters all may cross to more reasoned pastures.**

** non-native speakers: this whole sentence is a hopelessly mixed metaphor/allusion to a lyric/structural engineering/Rationalism meets Romanticism.
It means, thank you, Tdol, for your post.
 
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Pedroski

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Ok, I meant to say: if you use is, you are saying:

Paper and water is on the floor. Which to me looks like:

Two things is on the floor.

You would not say (I sincerely hope): 'My wife and I is hungry.' Nor 'Paper and water is different things.' But in reference to their spatial location you want to use is? That means, as you mentioned above, you regard (paper and water) as a singular noun. Does that have precedents in English?
 

David L.

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Paper and water is on the floor. Which to me looks like:

Two things is on the floor.

You would not say (I sincerely hope): 'My wife and I is hungry.'


You are extrapolating from the grammatical correctness of one form of sentence, to another that is using the 'existential' function of 'there' and saying, ditto.

I said earlier that, "You've turned an existential use on its head!" Let me explain what I meant:
There is a biblical/poetic/archaic (well, certainly quaint) form of this usage of 'there' where the order is reversed (as in your reversal, ''paper and water are on the floor":
"Faith and hope and charity are there on earth, and the greatest of these is charity."

With the reversal, two or more nouns, whether singular or plural in their own right, precede the verb, and so the subject of the sentence becomes plural, with the verb 'to be' in the plural form - hence, 'are'.
So -"Paper and water are there on earth...and paint too!"

Enjoying the discussion, Pedroski - with some banter:).
You keep us 'oh, so you know it all' native speakers on our toes and up to the mark, able to justify what we say - and with the ensuing discussion, hopefully show that the English language has a logic to it!:)
 
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Pedroski

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Yes David, I really enjoy trying to get to the bottom of these things. Forgive me if I seem a bit abrupt at times: I think I get carried away in the heat of the moment.

Consider this:
You agree that 'There are two lions in the park.' has the correct form of 'be'?

Jack and Jill are on the bed.
Make an existential sentence of it.

You would choose: There is Jack and Jill on the bed.

But then I would ask: *What is Jack and Jill doing on the bed? (To which you reply ' no you can't have the video of it!')
No, you would reply: that 'is' should be an 'are'.

What motivates you to choose a singular verb form for a dual logical subject?
 

Soup

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There is Jack and Jill on the bed.

What motivates you to choose a singular verb form for a dual logical subject?
With existential-there constructs the verb doesn't agree with the structural subject; i.e., there. Rather, it agrees with the notional subject, also called the semantic subject. For example,

Pat: Who's on the bed?
Max: Well, there is Jack, and Jill. <as individuals>
Note the ellipsis (...) here, there is Jack, and (there is) Jill.
That is, Jack is on the bed, and Jill is on the bed.
Max: Well, there are Jack and Jill, and Sam and Ali. <as couples>
Cf. contracted, Well, there's Jack and Jill, and Sam and Ali. <as couples>
That is, Jack and Jill are on the bed.
 

David L.

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Thank you, Soup. You had your thoughts on this issue, chose your moment, and added a constructive perspective.
You set a tone for the forum.
 
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Pedroski

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Hey Soup, I mentioned an ellipsed there is back on page one. But should you not want to agree to the existence of something that is not there, invisible, unseen and unfelt, so use:

There are paper and water on the floor.

Quote: Well, there's Jack and Jill, and Sam and Ali. Four people on the bed now! Hope it's strong enough! This is turning into an orgy, and you are still using the singular form of 'be'! Or proposing more unseens!
 

nonsense

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There's something of a difference between what might be common to use in spoken language and what would be proper to use in written language. The original question had to do with an editing test where the questioner was told that "There are paper and water on the floor" was incorrect grammar and that "is" was the only correct answer. It might be natural for me to say, "Be careful in the kitchen. There's paper and water on the floor." But I have yet to see a convincing argument why formally in writing "are" should be considered incorrect.

Here lie Jack and Jill Fredericks. May they rest in peace.
 

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Thank you, Soup. You had your thoughts on this issue, chose your moment, and added a constructive perspective.
You set a tone for the forum.
As do your posts, David. Your words are kind.
 

Soup

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The original question had to do with an editing test where the questioner was told that "There are paper and water on the floor" was incorrect grammar and that "is" was the only correct answer.

In the case of compound subjects (i.e., ____ and ___ and ___), a singular verb is more preferred, but a plural verb is possible, especially if plurality is strongly present, which is often the case when the coordinates belong to the same semantic class as in:

  • There was (or were) a horse and a cow in the pasture. [semantic class: farm animals]

  • There was (or were) a glass, two plates, two cups, and a teapot on the shelf. [semantic class: dishes]
Now, even though the nouns paper and water do not appear, at first, to belong to the same semantic class, we shouldn't discount the fact that they could or might. We could, of course, make up a class, which is possible, but no one, aside from us, would know that the two nouns were a class; unless, that is, we, or rather, the writer made that clear in the context--which the test question did not provide, and the very reason There are paper and water is awkward. It's forced: it assumes the reader should know that the two nouns belong to a semantically related class, which they don't; unless stated otherwise by the writer. That is the Writers' Code. All writers, ahem, good writers know that, especially their editors.
 

nonsense

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The Writers' Code:
[A man] should write so as he may live by [his labours], not so as he may be knocked on the head. I would advise him to be at Calais before he publishes.

Samuel Johnson

The Writers Code

The pen is mightier than the sword
So master the pen my son
Become one with the ink
Use it to sink, into the deep waters of imagination
Use it to weave and ensnare give light and despair
Use it, but use it with care
Remember its you that controls the pen
Not the pen which controls you
A warrior is nothing without his sword
You are nothing without a pen
Use it to duck and weave
With words to make others believe
What you say to be true
May people be inspired by what you write and do!

Daniel Hooks

I'm afraid I cannot find the place where it says that nouns must belong to the same semantic class to be counted as part of the subject. Could you be more specific in citing your sources?
 
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