I have spent many years studying several of the Romance languages. I was a Spanish major in undergraduate school, and I used Spaniish in my career in the business world for more than twenty years. Thus, I speak Spanish with native fluency. I took up Italian on my own, and I know a lot of Italian, even though I lack conversational expertise because I don’t have anyone to practice with. I started learning French as a child when our family lived in the western suburbs of Paris, and when I was traveling to Brazil on business I put considerable time into Portuguese.
I mention this as an introduction to a grammatical phenomenon, which is better understood when compared to the way the Romance languages deal with it. I refer to the way languages handle the issue of describing, in the most basic way, things that exist. In the Romance languages I have studied there is a consistent format that involves, in some way, the most basic verb in virtually any language – ‘to be’.
To begin he discussion, I will point out that Spanish has a verb – haber. Haber means ‘to have’, but in the modal format. In English we have one verb – ‘to have’ – that serves as a transitive verb (“I have some money”) and as a modal auxiliary (“I have borrowed some money”). In Spanish the transitive verb is tener (Yo tengo dinero).
When Spanish speakers want to describe something that exists, they use haber – “Hay gente en el parque” (“There are people in the park”). The form hay (which is present indicative, third person) is invariable – it serves for both plural and singular nouns – “Hay una persona en el parque” – (“There is a person in the park”). In French the construction is “il y a” and in Italian it is “c’è”. By the way, this consistency is maintained regardless of the verb tense.
However, in English we take this in a different direction – we use ‘there is’ or ‘there are’. It is one of those situations in English when the verb precedes the noun; normally it is the reverse. Whether writing or speaking, the person doing the communicating has to decide what the noun is – whether it is singular or plural – before using the verb, which comes first, and get the verb form correct from the beginning. For example someone might state, “There are several reasons for this situation” or the person may say, “There is a primary reason for this situation”. These cannot be interchanged because they would be grammatically incorrect.
I admit that there is a bit more pressure on people who are engaging in oral communication, especially if there is a dialogue going on. This implies that there is no script and that the speakers may be asking and answering questions and be discussing topics spontaneously. Nevertheless, educated people should have the mental dexterity to get the grammar correct.
Let’s imagine that one of speakers is asked a difficult question. That person will likely have to think for at least a second or two how to answer the question (assuming it does not require a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’). Very often the respondent will begin by describing things that exist. For example, the person may say, “There are many reasons why weI have difficulty dealing with stress in our society today”, or the response may begin with, “There is one major reason for the increased stress in people’s lives today”. Again, these forms are not interchangeable simply because the subjects are different – one is singular and the other is plural. The verb has to change to be in agreement with the subject (unlike the examples from the Romance languages described earlier).
Readers of this blog might suggest that my bringing up this grammatical inconsistency demonstrates that there is simply too much pressure on people today to have to decide on the fly whether they are going to use singular or plural nouns while starting a sentence. Well, the world is indeed getting to be very challenging, isn’t it? Is there anything wrong with doing the following? I am asked a question, and I take a little time to think about my response. I’m uncertain, so this occurs: “I believe there is, actually I believe there are, several good explanations for this situation.” As the speaker I might have to make a small alteration to my response in order to maintain grammatical consistency. Isn’t that to be expected in spontaneous discussions?
Why do people get this wrong so frequently today? I don’t know, but I will provide a telling example. A few months ago I was listening to an interview on NPR – National Public Radio. The person being interviewed was the president of a traditional, very well known liberal arts college. Two times in less than two minutes during the interview the president of the prestigious institution used the contraction “There’s” and followed it with plural nouns. One of the statements was something on the order of, “There’s many reasons for the decline in the study of liberal arts.” I can only assume this person has a doctorate and this it is in the Liberal Arts.
If the president of a liberal arts college, which has been around for more than one hundred and fifty years, doesn’t get this right, what hope do we have for others with less formal education? I listen to on the radio, or watch on television, the news virtually every day. When any of the broadcasts gets to an interview segment, it is surely going to happen that somebody is going to mess up and say “there’s” and follow it with a plural noun. If well educated, and often even highly educated, people don’t get this right, then we have a problem with the language.
Is it time, then, for the introduction of ‘therz’? We can simply add this new word to the lexicon and borrow the grammatical structure from the Romance languages. “Therz going to be some snow falling tonight” the meteorologist might say, or “Therz going to be five inches of accumulation tonight.” The person would have it correct either way, and would not have to go through the exercise of having to decide which form is correct. On the other hand, we might just stick with the traditional structure we have in English and expect people with a reasonable amount of education to get this construction correct. It isn’t that difficult, is it?
I think therz little chance that we are going to alter the language in this way – what do you think?