In a post last year called There’s Some Problems Here, I pointed out a common grammatical slip illustrated in that title: the subject of the sentence is the plural noun problems, and so the verb should be the plural are, not the singular is hidden in the contraction. This blunder has been around for a long time and it’s more common in speech than in writing. Go listening for it one day and you’ll be surprised by its prevalence.
It’s always the same old tension in the body of language, tension in the fundamental sense of maintaining a balance between the rules of grammar and the conventions common usage, between discipline over the elements of the art and the emotional expression of the artist, the classical and the romantic. The world won’t falter and international diplomacy cease because someone says there’s three representatives here to see you. But then again, why? The art of language—and it is an art and anyone who worries over it is an artist—asks each follower to work out that balance of rules and use for oneself, finding and holding a poise that is both fluent and one’s very own.
So for a moment, let’s understand why, on grammatical grounds, one would object to a sentence like It’s late November and there is still leaves on that tree. As is ever the case, we begin by observing how many clauses the sentence comprises, examining each, if necessary, in its turn. A clause connects a subject with a verb, and sometimes, as is the case here, a verb is concealed by a contraction. Thus, It is late November is the first clause of the statement, not material to our present question, but important to recognize in comprehending the context and analyzing thoroughly. The conjunction and then connects this first clause to another, there is still leaves on that tree, and so we are rushed out of the grammatical Garden of Eden. The lapse lies in the singular verb is, to which the writer was tempted, we may judge, by the word there. What is this word and why is it so powerful?
Odd to say, but it’s really the weakness of this first word there that makes it so meddlesome. Grammarians call it, ironically, an expletive, a word that merely fills out the space of a sentence without adding anything meaningful to the statement. (For the same reason we speak of an expletive meaning an obscene or unacceptable word, one whose purpose is emotional, not significant.) This second clause, then, begins with a word that has pushed its way into the place where we would regularly expect the subject, namely, before the verb in a declarative statement: leaves are still on that tree. With the subject in that regular order, few of us would slip and write leaves is still on that tree. The proximity of the noun to its verb would immediately alert us that the two should agree in number.
As an expletive, the word there logically means something like the situation is such that. With it, the writer points to the existence of a general condition, and then must go on to name that situation in order to be more specific. In other words, the writer takes the long way home, missing an opportunity to use a good strong verb to brighten the assertion: It’s late November and leaves still cling to that tree. Now it’s just not possible in many linguistic settings to avoid the expletive there. On a pleasant walk through the park, one is not likely, and rightly so, suddenly to point to a tree and say to a friend, Leaves still cling to that tree. Our conversational voice in most situations is more casual, less formal, less exact. But how much less exact? Even past the grammatical boundaries of subject-verb agreement?
If questions like these concern you, you have found yourself far into the art of language, where matters of grammar must contend to balance themselves with matters of logic and style as well. Here, rules are not imperious commands, but regulating principles, and how far to depart from those principles is the very artful work of it all.