There’s Some Problems Here

We remember, of course, the basic rule of grammar that a verb agrees in number with its subject: a client is, but clients are. Standard English word order requires that the verb follow the subject in declarative sentences, and that is what we have all come to expect: The client is in the conference room. Reverse the order, and we end up asking a question: Is the client in the conference room?

It’s easy to forget that straightforward rule, though, when we begin a sentence, as we very often do, with the phrase There’s. Take, for example, a casual exchange like this: “I can’t find anything to write with.” “There’s some pens in the top drawer.” Sentences like the latter are heard and spoken a thousand times a day; the meaning gets across, and the world doesn’t falter on its foundations.

But written language is, by definition, more formal than the spoken word, which means it pays closer attention to the elements and structure and arrangement of a sentence. Written language has settled down, so to speak, gotten a touch more mellow, and it wants to express ideas with that very care for exactitude that we normally throw to the wind as we live our days talking and shouting and running about. Formality, in writing, means being specific and precise; it doesn’t mean being stiff or stuffy or rule bearing.

So in the sentence There’s some pens in the top drawer, what exactly is wrong? The word There’s is a contraction, so we should first undo that and restore the full statement (it is always a good idea to do this before beginning an analysis): There is some pens in the top drawer. If next we ask ourselves just what is in that top drawer, we certainly would answer some pens, and we would just as certainly hear the plural. But the sentence has employed the singular is, and therein lies the problem. We can quickly correct the sentence, then, by changing the verb to its plural form to accord with the plural subject: There are some pens in the top drawer.

Why is this such a common mistake? The word there is an adverb, a word that expresses the idea of place or location, and when it is used like this to begin a sentence, it loses some of its adverbial strength. We might think of it as a springboard we use to jump into the real thought we want to say. In this first position, There serves simply to fill out the sentence by pointing to a general situation. So far so good, but in doing that, it also upsets the normal order of words. We usually expect the subject before the verb, but now the adverb has displaced the subject to assume a later place.

The real trouble begins, though, when the initial There swallows the verb to form a contraction. It muffles the sound of the verb, particularly in conversation, rushing us on to the subject and tricking us into using the wrong number of the verb, probably because it’s so much easier to say that one slurred syllable There’s than the jaw-jutting two-syllable There are. The grammar and logic of it all must predominate, though, because we are in fact referring to many particular pens.

Caution is in order, then, when we begin a sentence with There’s. Look for the subject to be sitting after the verb, and make sure the two agree. It’s a very common slip-up, and you’ll see and hear it a thousand times a day­­—which, of course, doesn’t mean it’s acceptable, just frequent.


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