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There are reasons to use "there are" before a plural, and there's reasons to use "there's"

There's examples all over the the place of people using "there's" before a plural noun. In fact, we just gave you one.

A listener named Bill from Kalamazoo recently wrote to us about this. He's noticed all kinds of people, including broadcasters, using "there's" in front of words that refer to multiple things such as "thousands" or "many" instead of using "there are."

He says, "As an old guy, it drives me crazy. Especially when said by a 'professional' who should know better."

Bill, all we can say is guilty as charged.

That's not to say we ignore all rules of plural agreement. We're definitely fans of there of "there are." The distinction between the two seems to come down to conversational style vs. written.

On the printed page, something like "there's thousands of reasons not to go" definitely looks a bit off. Plenty of us would certainly strike "there's" and replace it with "there are."

But close your eyes for a moment and imagine a spoken conversation with a friend that includes that same sentence. Would you even notice? Be honest.

The "there" that comes at the beginning of a sentence is what linguists call the "existential there." It allows us to take what we're talking about and put it in the second half of a sentence.

"The reason we do that is we like to put important information or new information into the second half of a sentence," says English Professor Anne Curzan. "Existential there lets us bump that information out."

Next comes the question of agreement. Theoretically, the noun that comes after "there" governs the agreement. A singular noun merits singular agreement: "there is one." A plural noun merits plural agreement: "there are two."

That seems pretty simple, but things get complicated once contractions enter the picture. Most of us wouldn't say "there is thousands" in conversation. On the other hand, "there's thousands" doesn't sound odd at all. It just sounds conversational.

In 2005 William Crawford, an English professor at Northern Arizona University, did a study on verb agreement and disagreement. He found that in written, edited prose, the "there's + plural" is almost always edited out. However, in spoken conversation, both casual and formal, he found that "there's + plural" is all over the place -- including academic lectures and NPR.

Crawford thinks this has to do with the demands of processing language in real time. In other words, when we're speaking and trying to get information out in real time, it's easier to simply say "there's" and not worry about whether what comes next is singular or plural.

What about you? Are you team "there's" or team "there are" when it comes to plurals? Let us know at rkruth@umich.edu or acurzan@umich.edu.

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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