A Word, Please: Where there’s a there’s, there’s controversy

An empty baggage claim area in John Wayne Airport.
An empty baggage claim area in John Wayne Airport. Grammar columnist June Casagrande writes that although many people dislike the subject-verb disagreement in a sentence like “There’s many people who wish to travel,” its common usage makes it acceptable.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

What do you think of the sentence “There’s multiple opportunities for youngsters”? How about “There’s many people who wish to travel”? How about “There’s a lot of students who wish to travel”?

If you’re like most English speakers, you’re fine with it. Chances are, you use these forms yourself. Nothing wrong with that. But if you’re like me or reader Elaine in Long Beach, you’re not a fan. And there’s nothing wrong with that, either.

Don’t see the issue? Compare the above sentences to these slightly modified versions: “There are multiple opportunities for youngsters.” “There are many people who wish to travel.” “There are a lot of students who wish to travel.”

In our first examples, the singular verb “is” pairs with a plural subject — “opportunities,” “people” or “students” — creating a subject-verb agreement error.

Most subject-verb agreement problems are easy to avoid. You’d never say “Opportunities is plentiful” or “Many people is wishing to travel.” But start a sentence with “there’s” and agreement gets more complicated.

The contraction is part of the reason. An apostrophe plus S paired with a plural sounds better than an “is” paired with a plural. “There’s people” sounds better than “there is people.”

Variant spellings can result from people misspelling a word for years. But the correctly spelled “manakin” is both a synonym of what we’re used to seeing and a word with its own meaning.

Throw in a singular-sounding modifier like “a lot” and it’s even easier to justify the singular verb: “There is a lot of people” sounds better than “there is people” because “a lot” is singular in form even though it’s plural in meaning.

But the biggest complicating factor is “there.”

Simple sentences put a subject directly before a verb: Jane walks fast. Mike plays the guitar. People are here.

It’s hard to mess up subject-verb agreement when the syntax is so straightforward.

But “there” can turn sentences upside-down, making it harder to see the relationship between the subject and the verb. “People are here” becomes “There are people here.” The pronoun “there” is in the subject position, but it’s a special kind of subject that doesn’t determine the number of the verb. This dynamic, called “existential there,” uses “there” as the grammatical subject, but the noun it displaced still functions as the “notional subject.” And it’s the notional subject that governs the verb.

So in “People are here,” the plural “people” requires a plural verb, “are.” In “There are people here,” that plural noun, “people,” is no longer the grammatical subject, but it’s still the notional subject. It still creates the need for a plural verb. So if you’re staying true to the rules of grammar, “There is people” would be wrong, as would its contracted form, “There’s people.”

But in language, correctness isn’t just about grammar. It’s also about idiom — common usage — which is where grammar comes from. The “rules” of grammar are really just descriptions of how words usually work together. If enough English speakers defy a rule long enough, their usage automatically becomes correct. And because “there’s” before a plural is standard, experts agree it’s an acceptable idiomatic form.

A lot of people don’t want to hear that. Rules are rules, they say. But that’s not how our language works. Even the most proper English speakers break grammar rules.

Consider this sentence: “I’m a good person, aren’t I?” This is standard, correct and acceptable — but ungrammatical. The plural verb “are” shouldn’t go with the singular subject “I.” You don’t say “I are a good person.” You say “I am a good person.” “Am” is the correct verb form to correspond with “I.”

To strictly adhere to the rules of syntax, you’d have to say, “I’m a good person, amn’t I?” or “I’m a good person, am I not?” But no one talks that way and, thankfully, no one needs to. The plural verb “are” is correct in “aren’t I” because it’s an established and therefore acceptable idiom.

So it’s not wrong to say, “There’s multiple opportunities for youngsters” or “There’s many people who wish to travel.” But if you do, know that there are many people, me included, who don’t like it.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at