When I worked as a contract language tester for the FBI, my colleagues and I discussed the phenomenon of “native-speaker errors,” such as there’s with plural nouns. Native-speaker errors are mistakes in grammar, spelling, or pronunciation that speakers make in their first (and sometimes only) language. Below are a few examples from English:
- writing your instead of you’re (or vice versa)
- pronouncing library as “LYE-berry”
- pronouncing supposedly as “suh-POSE-uh-blee”
- pronouncing drown as “drownd,” as in He might drownd or He almost drownded.
Using there’s with plural nouns
One native-speaker error stood out for me, perhaps because even highly educated speakers made the mistake: using there’s with plural nouns, as in There’s a few slices of pizza in the fridge or There’s two hundred tickets left.
Using here’s or there’s with plural nouns is exceedingly common, especially in spoken English. Listen carefully as you talk to friends, family, and coworkers—you will likely hear one of them (or yourself) use there’s with plural nouns.
Is there’s always there is?
The short answer is no. Sure, there’s is the contraction for the impersonal construction there is. There is is for singular subjects (There is a patient in the waiting room) and there are is for plural subjects (There are several patients in the waiting room).
That’s the theory. But in practice, this distinction often gets lost. So people readily say things like There’s three ducks on the pond or write Agronomy experts say there’s several reasons why the knee-high benchmark is outdated. (Yes, even journalists use there’s with plural nouns.)
This speech trend is even making its way into scripted advertisements. In the “Two Reasons” ad for the Hyundai Veloster, actor Jeff Bridges says, “There’s lots of reasons to love Veloster’s voice text messaging. Here’s two.” Two instances of there’s/here’s with plural nouns in a 16-second spot!
So did the marketing staff describe the video that way when they uploaded it to YouTube? No. Instead, they wrote the following:
There are a lot of reasons why you’ll be thankful for the Hyundai Veloster’s Voice Text Messaging feature.
What’s interesting, too, is that native speakers would never be caught using there’s with plural nouns if there’s were in its non-contracted form, there is. Even the least grammar-savvy native English speakers would likely recognize There is three ducks or There is several reasons as wrong.
Data on there’s with plural nouns
Thanks to Google’s book digitization project, we can see the incidence of there’s with plural nouns in printed works from 1800 to 2000. Assuming that there’s with plural nouns would be more common in spoken English than in printed English, I chose to use the “English fiction” corpus for an informal test (some teen fiction somewhere must have a few characters who say there’s with plural nouns…). Here are the findings:
- there are several (grammatically correct): varies in usage between 0.000220000% (low) and 0.000280000% (high) between 1970 and 2000
- there’s several (grammatically incorrect but observed): varies in usage between 0.000000300% (low) and 0.000001100% (high) between 1970 and 2000
- see the combined graph of there are several and there’s several (you can barely notice the curve for there’s several along the x-axis)
Interpretation of results
If you have trouble making sense of these numbers, think of it this way: The highest incidence of appearance for there are several was 255 times that of there’s several during the period 1970–2000. The lowest incidence of appearance for there are several was 733 times that of there’s several during the same period. This corresponds to what you would expect: fiction authors wrote there are several far more than there’s several.
However, between 1990 and 1998, there was almost a fourfold increase in the use of there’s several in printed works. This suggests that new or changing patterns in speech eventually appear in writing as well.
I am not aware of any speech corpus with which we can do the same test, but my guess is that the numbers would be different, with there’s several closing in on there are several.
If you want to see how the popularity of a certain word or phrase changes over time, try the Google Books Ngram Viewer yourself. Enter a time period, type in a word, and off you go!
For other examples of word change, see Alan Headbloom’s post on acronyms, abbreviations, and language change.
Matthew Kushinka is the founder and principal of RedLine Language Services LLC. Based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the company helps commercial clients create, revise, and translate their written content. Send your questions or comments to email@example.com or connect with Matthew on Google+, LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter.