Find the Subject and Verb – “this” and “there” developments

In previous posts I wrote about Subject-Verb mismatches when a clause intervenes, and when a prepositional phrase intervenes. There is another, perhaps more pernicious, form of mismatching, the There is malformation.  This has become widespread not only in my students’ papers, but on television, in political speeches, and in print articles. Here are some examples from my students’ essays:

Before I die, there is a couple of things I would like to do.

Going away to college was always a goal, which I have now accomplished, but there is now plenty of more things I want to do.

In my lifetime, there has been occurrences when I made the wrong choice and my life seemed to be going wrong

This is the things that are going through their head when they are in assisted living.

There is now plenty of more things I want to do in my lifetime that going to college set me up to do.

Let’s review:  Sometimes there is a Subject, a Verb, and an Object (Fred loves ice cream – A loves B). When the entities on either side of the Verb are the same (I am a teacher – A equals A), the Verb simply links these two entities, and is referred to sometimes as a Linking Verb. The word to the left of is (I) is the same entity as the word to the right (a teacher). They are both singular, and the verb between them is therefore singular.

In the A = A construction, there or this serve as empty placeholders to the left of the Linking Verb. They absorb all of the qualities of the word to the right, and the verb agrees with the word to the right. In the first sentence above, things is plural, and the verb should be are. There is no singular element in the first sentence at all, so no place for a singular verb.

As with all matters syntactical, this it not always that simple.  Consider the caption to a photo on page A6 of The New York Times on May 16, 2012:  Valérie Trierweiler and France’s new president, François Hollande, are the first unwed couple to occupy the Élysée Palace. There is a plural, compound subject (Trierweiler and Hollande) to the left of the Linking Verb (are), and a singular noun (couple) to the right. The writer has chosen to make the verb agree with the entity to the left, which is plural. [Trierweiler and Hollande] is the first unwed couple… doesn’t sound right.

When the entity to the left of the Linking Verb is empty, like there, the Verb should agree with the only entity which has number; the noun to the right. That does not happen in the examples above.

The only explanation I can come up with to explain this phenomenon is phonetic.  It is much easier to say “there’s” than “there are” or some shortened form like “there’er.”

Since there is no unifying explanation for the various Subject-Verb mismatches discussed in earlier posts, I would choose this possibly phonetic explanation for the dissolution of agreement between Subject and Verb in all cases.  If one can slip phonetically into, “There is many reasons,” then one can also say, “The reasons my mother gave me is the best ones.” That is also easier to pronounce than “there are.” If one can use a singular verb with a plural noun in that case, why stick to the rules of agreement in other settings? It is for this reason that I call this form pernicious – it has leaked into the foundations of the grammatical structure and upset all manner of sentences which are built on this structure.

When I told my husband that President Obama frequently says such things as “There’s many reasons for this,” he said that was impossible.  Listen for yourself.  Listen to news announcers and pundits, to former President Bush. Our language role models are using this grammatical form, and it is being picked up by my students. As if to illustrate this point, in a PBS program about Johnny Carson, one commentator said, “When he went on the air there was tremendous expectations.”

Perhaps this change will be permanent, or it will pass. In the meantime, how do we approach our students’ papers? I am deeming There has been occurrences, and There is many reasons incorrect, but I do so without hysteria. It must have been upsetting when people stopped using the familiar thou form a couple of centuries ago, and when the subjunctive started going out of style (If I were going to the concert in the park, I would buy an umbrella). Before John Lennon, I didn’t know what a yellow submarine was, and found the change from Mrs. or Miss to a ubiquitous Ms. unsettling. Language is the harbinger of the future, and thus of change. It tests our flexibility of mind, and challenges our assumptions.

Exercise:  Since the There’s many reasons epidemic is upon us, it would be helpful to do some class exercises in which the students filled in the correct verb form in there or this sentences. Make up sentences using these words, with nouns of varying forms on the right side of varying forms of the verb to be. Even if the language changes, your students will at least be able to control the sentences they write. The standard written form will undoubtedly remain There are many reasons for some time to come. They must master standard forms for their own future good.


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