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There Is/There Are + Nouns in a Series

July 26, 2017

English grammar often follows logical patterns and rules, which makes it easier to teach and learn. However, there are times when English grammar isn’t logical, such as when the indefinite subject there is followed by a series of nouns. What’s the best way to present this tricky grammar point to our students?

Subject-Verb Agreement

In English, a plural subject takes a plural verb. We often use the conjunction and to create a plural subject.

  • Friends are important.
  • Mika and Juan are classmates.

Sentences that begin with the indefinite subject there are very common in English. They are used to describe a situation (often involving preposition of place and a location). When we use there as a subject, the verb must agree with the nouns that come after the verb.

  • There is a book on the table.
  • There are five books on the table.

But when there refers to a series of nouns using a conjunction like and or or, it seems like logic goes out the window. We know that X and Y means at least two, so why would there ever be a singular verb used in this case? It can be very surprising for students to learn that it is not only possible but also common to see a singular verb before more than one noun.

  • There is a cat and a dog on my bed.
  • There is a fork, a knife, and a spoon in front of me.

Let’s take a closer look at the not-so-logical rules for noun series with there.

Rule 1: There Is

When the first noun in the series is singular or non-count, use there is.

  • There is a book and a pen in my bag.
  • There is a computer, a whiteboard, and an overhead projector in the classroom.
  • There is a pillow, sheets, and two blankets on my bed.
  • There is cream and sugar on the table.
  • There is juice, milk, and soft drinks in the fridge.
  • There is a lot of dirt and pebbles on my son’s clothes.*

*(Dirt is non-count, so we use is even with the plural quantifier a lot of.)

Rule 2: There Are

When the first noun in the series is plural, use there are.

  • There are flowers and herbs in my mom’s garden.
  • There are cookies and a sandwich in my lunch bag.
  • There are three pens, a pencil, and two erasers in that desk drawer.
  • There are chips and popcorn at the party.
  • There are many types of music and food at this event.
  • There are a lot of pebbles and dirt on my son’s clothes.


1. Contractions

It is very common to shorten there is to there’s in informal speaking and writing. However, there’re is almost never used because it is awkward to say and write (and to me it’s wrong, though some people say it’s possible). I encourage my students to use there’s, but I teach them not to use there’re.

  • There’s a box and some packing tape in the storage room.
  • There’s a lot of money and help available for refugees in my city.

2. Articles

Even though there is and there are are describing a specific noun, they are almost always followed by a, not the (see this post for a few exceptions). Make sure students realize that the second noun in the sentence (that describes the location) will take the, as usual.

  • There is a bird and a squirrel in the tree.
  • There is a piano and two guitars on the stage.

3. There, There

Can we have there twice in a sentence? It’s definitely possible. The first there is an indefinite subject with no real meaning, while the second there is a location that’s usually a bit further away (i.e., the opposite of here).

  • There is a gas station and a grocery store over there.
  • You mean the parking lot behind the school? There is a car and three trucks there.

4. Tenses

Tell learners that this rule can be used in any tense (e.g., there was/were, there has been/have been, etc.). You should also point out that modal constructions only have one form, so students can’t go wrong here (e.g., there will be, there can be, there should be, etc.).

  • There was a business conference and a wedding going on at our hotel last night.
  • There were two canoes and a kayak out on the lake last weekend.
  • There will be a luncheon and an awards ceremony next Friday.
  • There will be refreshments and drinks at the meeting.

5. Euphony

When how something sounds to the ear trumps grammatical logic, it is known as euphony. Merriam-Webster defines euphony as “pleasing or sweet sound; especially: the acoustic effect produced by words so formed or combined as to please the ear.” Euphony helps explain the less-than-logical situation of there is + nouns in a series.

6. Controversy

Note that not everyone agrees on how to treat there with a series of nouns.

  • Some grammar books consider the rules mentioned in this post to be standard. For example, Collins Cobuild English Grammar states “You use a singular form of ‘be’ when you are giving a list of items and the first noun in the list is singular or uncountable.”
  • Other grammar books state that the above rules are only for informal English. They say that in formal English, you should always use a plural verb with a series of nouns, even if the first noun is singular. Consider Azar’s Understanding and Using English Grammar, which states: “Sometimes in informal English, a singular verb is used after there when the first of two subjects connected by and is singular. For example: Formal: There are a book and a pen on the desk. Informal: There is a book and a pen on the desk.”


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Comments (48)

Wang Yijie(Guest)

This is absolutely helpful. Cheers!

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Happy to hear it! Thanks for commenting.

Chris (Guest)

Question for you:
What are the nouns after 'There is' considered?

I'm assuming Direct Object. Is that correct?

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

It depends on which style guide or grammar guide you're using, Chris! Some guides say 'there' is the subject (often called an indirect/expletive/empty/dummy/placeholder subject). For example, Collins Cobuild English Grammar says '...some thing new cannot be talked about until it has been introduced. So 'there' is used as the subject of the sentence and the new information is introduced after 'be'.' In that case, the noun following 'there is' would be considered a direct object.

Other guides, such as The Chicago Manual of Style, consider the noun after 'there is' to be the true subject. For example, CMOS says:
'An expletive it or there may be in the subject position, especially when the subject of a sentence is a clause {it is a rule that children must raise their hands to speak during class [the rule is that children must raise their hands to speak during class]}. In this position, the expletive shifts the emphasis to the predicate containing the true subject.'

My opinion is that it is easiest for lower-level students to understand the usual SVO pattern in a sentence like 'There is a cat on my bed.' For higher-level students, however, you may want to discuss subject-verb inversion and explore it further.

Apricot (Guest)

Perfect timing -- I read a non-native writer's sentence using 'There are' + series today. I knew it was wrong but couldn't figure out why. Thanks for helping me learn and explain this rule!

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

My pleasure! Thanks for your comment.

Shine (Guest)

Good explanation.
I got confused before i see it.
There is a book and a cat or
There are a book and acat.
Now i got it.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

I'm so glad it helped you!

Ricardo gamarra(Guest)

thank you very much for this excellent post. I had some troubles of the subject/verb agreement using there is. I have always used there is with singular nouns but in a group of nouns I tended to use it every time I mentioned an item, like this: 'there is a cat and there is a dog on my bed' because I always thought that having two items I had to use there are but it sounded improper to me to use it with a singular noun, like this: 'there are a cat and a dog on my bed'. After reading your post I know that is perfectly okay to say There is a cat and a dog in my bed and also There are a cat and a dog on my bed. Now I can pass this useful information on my english students.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

I'm happy it helped, Ricardo! Thanks for your comment.

Mo (Guest)

The controversy part, according to Other grammar books, in formal English, would they use there is or there are, if a series of nouns were uncountable?
There is/are some soup and some fish on the table.

Reply to Comment

KR (Guest)

Should 'is/are' be used in formal writing when there is a combination of uncountable and countable nouns?
There is/are blood, sweat, and tears behind every success story.

Don (Guest)

I would like to ask
There's books and flowers on the tables;There are books and flowers on the table .which sentence is correct?

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Don, 'There are books and flowers on the table' is the correct sentence because 'books' is plural.

mags-arts (Guest)

Thank you so much for the article!
But I am a bit confused: I understand we should say 'There is a knife and two forks on the table'.
But what about questions?
Should I say 'Is there a knife and two forks? Yes, there is' or 'Are there a knife and two forks? Yes, there are'?

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

That's a very good question. I believe that the same rules would apply, so we'd use a singular verb if the first noun is singular: 'Is there a knife and two forks on the table?' / 'Yes, there is (a knife and two forks on the table).'

Neeraj bisht(Guest)

Thank you so much mam. It helped a lot.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

You're welcome! I'm happy to hear that.

Riduyan S.(Member)

1.There is a man and two women.
2. There are two women and a man.
Which series is coreect??

Should we start list/ series with singular noun or plural????

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Riduyan,

Both of your sentences are correct and there is no difference in meaning. Great job with the subject–verb agreement (is a/are two)!

You can start the series either way. In English, the first noun always has slightly more importance/focus, so in your first sentence, your reader would be slightly more aware of the man, and in your second sentence, the focus would be slightly more on the two women. But both sentences are absolutely correct and the meaning is the same for both sentences (= there are three people).

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