"There is/are" sentence is very common in English language and it is commonly used in text books for descriptions. In this post I will focus on the mistakes Vietnamese learners of English make when using "there is/are" sentence and the subject-verb agreement in this kind of sentence.
Vietnamese language doesn’t use this kind of sentence construction. In Vietnamese, expressing the same thing is much simplified and that’s why "there is/are" sentences don’t make sense for them.
There is a table next to the sofa.
Most of the Vietnamese learners will say “table next to the sofa” which is word by word translation from Vietnamese. More ambitious learners will say “there is a table is there next to the sofa”. A small amount of learners will say the sentence correctly. If the sentence is simplified as shown below then the learners just omit the verb “to be” which makes their speech more appealing.
A table is next to the sofa.
In the case of "there is/are" sentence first you have to identify the subject then use the verb accordingly. It makes sense until the subject is a compound subject. A compound subject is a subject formed by at least two nouns connected by the word "and".
There are a remote control and a laptop on the table.
There is a remote control and a laptop on the table.
Which of the above sentences is correct? I used the first one since it makes sense from grammar point of view. The second example sounds better for my ears and it doesn’t seem to be wrong.
The truth is that both are correct. The first example follows the standard rule which says “use a plural verb with two or more subjects when are connected by the word and (at least this is what my grammar book says). The second example seems to be more popular because it sounds more natural. Having the verb "is" next to a singular noun is more pleasant for the ears. In this situation, you can make the verb agree with the first item of the list, in my case a remote control. However, I asked a native speaker of English (also English teacher) which one is the correct example and he said that the second one. He added that you always have to make the verb agrees with the first item of the list. How could I tell a native speaker of English that he is wrong and both examples are correct?!
Here is another interesting thing; what if I reorder and the same sentence will become something like you can see below:
A remote control and a laptop are on the table.
A remote control and a laptop is on the table.
Oops, my spelling and grammar tool underlines the word "is" in the second example and suggests the word "are". That is not a surprise since after reordering we have a totally different sentence structure. In this case, the subject-verb agreement can not follow the rule that says “the verb agrees with the first item of the list”. So, only the first example is correct.
Because the word “are” is used in both situations and it is correct, although in the first situation doesn’t sound very natural, I will stick with it.