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An expletive is a construction that begins with here, there, what, when, which or it, followed by the to be verb (is, are, was, were, etc.), and then by the actual subject of the sentence.

The expletive delays the actual subject of the sentence. In sentences beginning with such expletives, the actual subject (which follows the verb) determines the verb form.

Examples:

  • There is a word for that.
  • Here are several choices.
  • Here lie the soldiers and sailors of the last war.

Remember that it is the subject of the sentence—not the expletive—that does the action of the verb. The same rule applies to what, who, when, which—these pronouns follow the number of the actual subject.

Examples:

  • What is needed is love.
  • What are needed are new supplies.
  • What we are interested in are new rice varieties.
  • What is your name?
  • What are your talents?
  • Who are we supposed to vote for?
  • Please tell me which dogs are friendly to babies.
  • When are the dive trips scheduled?

We say “There is” when what follows next is singular or uncountable, e.g., “There is a storm coming up” or “There is too much luggage on board.”

We also say “There are” when what follows next is plural, e.g., “There are two varieties of rice available.”

But what if what follows next is a compound subject? Say, “a man and a dog”–which is often considered plural? Do we say “There are a man and a dog standing near the window”? Sounds awkward, doesn’t it?

One way to get around the awkwardness is appoint a determiner for each subject, e.g., “There is a man and there is a dog standing near the window.” But this sentence sounds clunky.

Most grammarians argue that the verb will follow the item (subject) nearest it, which is why many would say, “There is a man and a dog standing near the window.” Their argument is that the “man” and the “dog” are counted separately.

Others would just change the sentence altogether: “A man and a dog are standing near the window.” I prefer this because the sentence is crisper; it doesn’t begin with an indefinite noun phrase. Writers are encouraged to write in simpler, clearer sentences. Instead of “There were many concepts discussed at the conference,” writers recommend that we say, “Many concepts were discussed at the conference.”

More of the discussion at BBC.

Photo credit: Life Change Network

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