Q&A: “There’s" vs “there are” – which one?

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Each week, we chat about the quirks and anomalies of the English language. This week, there’s more to this one than meets the eye…

Q: Hi AWC, this is going to be a long Q&A today, so please get comfortable.
A: How do you know it’s going to be so long?

Q: I read ahead. Now, take a look at this picture above.
A: It looks like a billboard near Sydney airport.Q: Wow, yeah. How did you know that?
A: You named the file billboardnearsydneyairport.jpg

Q: Ah okay, fair enough. So anyway, it contains something that really got me questioning my grammar.
A: Yes, spotted it. But first, kudos to Industry Superfunds for getting its hands to cradle the “Left Lane Ends” sign so perfectly.

Q: Good point. But now to the culprit. Or IS it a culprit? At first glance, it seems okay. But wait, no. What’s the verdict on this one?
A: Yeah, there are many issues around this.

Q: Not to be confused with “there’s many issues around this”?
A: Precisely. And yet the incorrect usage is popping up everywhere.

Q: Say it isn’t so!
A: Exactly – “say” is the key here. When we speak to each other, we’re typically talking fast, not fully thinking things through from start to finish, and in casual conversation opt for colloquialisms and contractions like “there’s” for “there is” and even “there’re” for “there are”.

Q: Surely “there’re” is not a valid contraction?
A: Officially, no. However, in speech it does get used (a kind of slurred “there are”). But more commonly, people will look to shorten “there are” to “there’s”. We are talking about informal chit-chats here, not State of the Union speeches.

Q: Well, that’s speech. But writing should be a little less “Wild West” than that, surely?
A: In the USA, not really.

Q: Home of the Wild West. Makes sense.
A: True. They have built quite the reputation for cutting as many corners as possible with the English language. (To be fair, often for logical and consistency reasons that leave the British looking frightfully pedantic.) So, it’s quite common to see “there’s” as the accepted contraction form for both “there is” and “there are”, individual style guides notwithstanding.

Q: And in UK English, and Australia?
A: We disagree with the American “dumbing down” of the rule. For us, it’s actually pretty simple. If it’s singular, use “there is” / “there’s” and if it’s a plural, use only “there are”. So in the billboard example above, purists would argue that it should read: “There are over 5 million of us out here.”

Q: But then purists would probably say “five” instead of “5”, right?
A: Yep.

Q: Yeah, it’s tricky I guess.
A: Unless you are purposefully writing in a colloquial way (dialogue or perhaps on an informal blog), we recommend that you always use “there are” for plurals. We’d argue the authors of the billboard were hoping to appeal “to the people” with a more relaxed approach. Or they could have simply made an error – we’ll never know because they’ll always claim it was the first reason!

Q: Can you give me an example of this whole dilemma in the form of a song?
A: Sure. Take John Lennon’s famous song “Imagine”. The start of the first verse says “Imagine there’s no heaven” and that’s okay because heaven is the singular. But the start of the next verse goes on to say “Imagine there’s no countries” – which technically should have been “Imagine there ARE no countries”, but no one’s going to argue with a dead Beatle.

Q: Too soon?
A: Probably. Basically, while the rules have loosened somewhat, it’s still NOT acceptable to write “there’s” for plurals, such as “there’s three cats playing Scrabble”. And technically it IS wrong if you’re being black and white about it.

Q: More like fifty shades of grey.
A: That’s in cinemas next week.

Q: I can’t wait. I’m taking my 95-year-old grandmother. She’s a fan. Actually, that reminds me, she phoned earlier to confirm our matching leather outfits.
A: A little too much information…

Q: Anyway, and I hadn’t spoken to her for a while, so I said “how’s things?” – does that fall into this, because technically should it be “how are things?”
A: Sorry, just removing that mental image from earlier. Yes, that’s exactly right. Some people write this, but it’s technically wrong.

Q: So WHY are people writing “there’s” incorrectly so often?
A: Experts suggest we hedge our bets with “There’s” because, even in writing, we often begin a sentence without fully knowing where it’s going to go. If it becomes plural, we should go back and fix it, but sometimes people don’t, even though they should.

Q: I often begin my day without fully knowing where it’s going to go. Recently I ended up on a flight to Beijing after reading a magazine article in a doctor’s waiting room about a cool international sporting event they were hosting. Turned out the magazine was from 2008.
A: Yes, waiting rooms really need to work on that.

Q: So what about “a lot of” in these examples – like “There’s a lot of…” vs “There are a lot of”?
A: It’s pretty straightforward. We’ve talked about mass and count nouns before – “a lot of” covers both. So if it’s something you can count, it should really be plural. “There are a lot of jelly beans in this jar.”

Q: How many?
A: Sorry?

Q: How many? It’s a fundraiser.
A: But it was our examp— Oh never mind. 427?

Q: Not even close. 653. Please continue.
A: Right. So, if it’s a mass noun, that can be considered singular. “There’s a lot of furniture in this room” or “there’s a lot of tension in your neck” etc.

Q: There’s just a few more questions to answer. Oh, wait, there ARE just a few more questions. Wow, these pop up all the time. So can “there’s” be anything other than “there is”?
A: Yep. It can also be a contraction of “there has” – as in “there’s been a mistake”.

Q: How do you decide between “there has” and “there have”?
A: It’s the mass nouns vs count nouns again – “there has” for singular/mass nouns, “there have” for plurals/countable nouns. And the same issues pop up with people using “there’s” instead of “there have” – e.g. incorrectly saying “there’s been some changes to the itinerary”…

Q: So back to “there are”… you wouldn’t recommend writing “there’re”?
A: No, we wouldn’t. It just looks clumsy. And don’t use “there’s” as an alternative. You might want to use a contraction, but there really isn’t one. The exception would be if you are writing dialogue for a character and want to illustrate that they merge their words together.

Q: There are a lot of aspects to this area.
A: Indeed, there are.

Q: There is a correct way to do it though.
A: Indeed, there is.

Q: So are we fighting a losing battle on this one?
A: Well, people have been using the singular “there is” for plurals for over 400 years. It may not make the billboard right, but it makes it hard to fight. Just be consistent in using the correct form and probably learn to choose your battles when pointing out the mistake. Billboard: yes, make the effort to get it right. Facebook post: turn a blind eye …

Q: Good advice. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a doctor’s appointment.
A: Grab your passport, just in case…

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