There's a Problem with "There's"--Actually, There ARE Two

by Tina Blue
November 10, 2000

Cheap and Easy Explanation:

(1)  When you say or write "there's," remember that "'s" is a contracted form of the verb "is," and whether you use "there's" or "there is," the verb must agree with the subject of the clause.

(2)  Generally, "there is" and "there are" are weak, flabby constructions. Occasionally it may be necessary to use such phrasing, but don't let it become a habit.

Within just the last few years I have noticed a tendency among both speakers and writers to ignore the issue of subject-verb agreement when using the construction "there is" or its contraction "there's" to begin a clause. In speech, and now even in a lot of writing, the contracted "there's" is far more common than the full "there is," and I suspect that most people don't quite recognize "'s" as a verb. Consequently, their carelessness over the use of "there's" contaminates even their use of "there is."

I am reminded of the problem with "could've," which is so often incorrectly written as "could of," simply because writers don't recognize "'ve" as the contraction for "have." (See my article on the "could of" error.) I actually believe that in both cases--"there's" and "could of"--the writer, if he actually thought about it, would realize that the contractions are verbs, but who ever thinks these days before writing (or doing anything else, for that matter)?

Here are a few examples of sentences I have seen and heard recently:

  ~There's more ways to approach this issue than most people realize.

  ~There's several examples of irony in Edith Wharton's "Roman Fever."

  ~There's thousands of Florida votes being challenged by the Democratic Party.

  ~There's a few questions that I'd like to have answers to.

(I could go on for pages--there are so many examples I could've included.)

But the subject-verb agreement problem is not the only reason to be careful about using the "there is" (or even the "there are") construction. The fact is, there are much better ways to start a clause or a sentence. Now, I am not saying that a writer should never start a sentence with this construction. Many writing situations seem to call for, or at least comfortably tolerate, such phrasing. But very rarely will "there is/are" be precisely the perfect wording for the beginning of a clause or a sentence, and if there is (check it out!) a better way to say something, then you should choose the better way.

Think about what you accomplish--or rather how little you accomplish--when you say there is something. In the first place, you have used a linking verb where an action verb would probably work better. It's not always true that you should prefer an action verb over a linking verb, but certainly it is usually true.

Besides being sharper, more vivid, and more precise, sentences with action verbs are also more economical, partly because you don't have to tackle the same point twice--once to establish that it exists, and once to say whatever it is that you were going to say about it in the first place.

For example, the sentence "There are a few questions that I'd like to have answers to" has twelve words; "I'd like to have answers to a few questions" has nine words; even better, "I'd like to have a few questions answered" or "I'd like answers to a few questions" have eight and seven words, respectively, and both versions get rid of the awkward and entirely unnecessary repetition of "to"

Though related, brevity and economy in writing are not the same thing. Economical writing uses as many words as needed, but no more, to convey both the idea and the effect that the author intends. If a shorter version of the sentence leaves out part of the author's point, then that is false economy.

Take, for example, the last two versions of that sample sentence: "I'd like to have a few questions answered" and "I'd like answers to a few questions." The writer should choose whichever version more precisely conveys the tone and emphasis he's after, for there actually are subtle differences between the two, with the latter (and shorter) version being slightly more forceful and demanding. If the writer prefers a kinder, gentler tone, he will choose the first version.

Linking verbs are not "bad," and English teachers who forbid students to use them are just silly and uninformed. Still, I tell my own students that they can improve their writing overnight by analyzing their own use of linking verbs and then making sure that 80% or more of their verbs are action verbs. (Sure, I make these numbers up, but they are not groundless. They're estimates based on nearly thirty years of experience as a critical reader and a teacher of writing.)

Now, go back and check your last piece of writing. Count the number of linking verbs and the number of action verbs. (Linking verbs used as auxiliary verbs can usually be ignored in this count.) If you don't have at least four times as many action verbs as linking verbs, you might want to ask a few of those lazy linking verbs to justify themselves, and if they can't, give their jobs to healthy, vigorous action verbs.

Then, go through and look for the "there's/there are" construction. If you find it, ask yourself whether it is the best way to phrase that point. If you decide to keep the little dickens around, make sure that he and the subject he keeps company with are in full agreement. How? Just reverse the inversion:

  ~There's more ways = more ways are there

  ~There's several examples = several examples are there

  ~There's thousands of votes = thousands of votes are there

  ~There's a few questions = a few questions are there

So there it is.
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