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A Word, Please: Here’s how to decide whether to use ‘are’ or ‘is’

“And so it was when I found myself staring at that sentence, which appeared in an article I was editing recently, and stopped dead in my tracks. ‘There are a variety’? ‘There is a variety’? For some reason, I couldn’t remember despite having researched the matter multiple times in the past.”
(Caleb Jones / AP)

“There are a variety of Medicare supplement plans on the market.”

For an editor, this is not a difficult sentence. We see stuff like this all the time and don’t blink an eye. But sometimes things that shouldn’t trip me up trip me up. Things I’ve known for years — things I’ve researched and confirmed and committed to memory — seem to fall right out of my brain.

And so it was when I found myself staring at that sentence, which appeared in an article I was editing recently, and stopped dead in my tracks. “There are a variety”? “There is a variety”? For some reason, I couldn’t remember despite having researched the matter multiple times in the past.

To get to the answer, there are a couple of issues to consider. One is whether “variety” is singular, which would require the singular verb “is,” or whether it’s plural, requiring the verb “are.”

The second issue is whether “variety” governs the verb at all. Could “plans” be the subject of the verb? If so, there’s no question the verb should be “are,” as in “There are plans on the market.”

Finally, there’s a question of whether “existential there” changes the equation. We’ll start with that one.

Existential there takes a sentence like “A man was selling hot dogs” and mixes it up to get “There was a man selling hot dogs.” Both describe the same thing, but unlike the first sentence that has a real person and a real action as the main clause, the second sentence has “there” as its subject. The man is still the one doing the selling.

But the main clause isn’t about him or what he’s doing. The main clause is “there was.” The man selling has been demoted from the grammatical subject to what’s called a notional subject. But what matters for our purposes is that notional subject still governs whether the verb is singular or plural. “There are some men selling hot dogs” and “There is a man selling hot dogs” show you how the verbs take their cue from the notional subject. So in our original sentence, “there” as the first word doesn’t affect whether we should choose “is” or “are.” So we can set that matter aside to look at trickier dynamics at play in our Medicare supplement question.

That leads us to the next question: Which word in our original sentence governs the verb, “variety” or “plans”? Consider “a flock of seagulls is overhead” and “a flock of seagulls are fighting among themselves for a French fry.” See how either the singular or the plural verb can be right, depending on whether the singular flock is acting as a unit or the plural seagulls are acting independently? That’s because when you have a noun followed by a preposition and another noun, either noun can have a verb. There’s no rule that says only the head noun can get a verb: flock, singular, or seagulls, plural.

In our original sentence, either “variety” or “plans” can take govern the verb. But if you believe, as I do, that “variety” makes more sense as a subject, the question now comes down to: Should “variety” be considered singular or plural?

Now, at last, we can get a straight answer from a number of reliable guides. Here’s Garner’s Modern American Usage: “When the phrase ‘a variety of’ means ‘many,’ it takes a plural verb … ‘there are a variety of ’90s-type bills padding the typical household budget.’”

Garner goes further, saying it’s erroneous to use the singular verb, as in “There is a variety of dwelling types.”

According to multiple guides, our seemingly complicated question has a simple answer: “a variety of” is plural. It takes the plural verb, “are,” and not the singular verb, “is.” The sentence that tripped me up should be: “There are a variety of Medicare supplement plans on the market.”

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