September 01, 2005

When "there's" isn't "there is"

In response to yesterday's post on Mayor Nagin's remark about how "there's way too many frickin' -- excuse me -- cooks", Arnold Zwicky pointed out by (slightly edited) email that

"there is" + <plural noun phrase> is indeed nonstandard (and somewhat more common in the south and south midlands than elsewhere, I believe -- I'm away from my sources on this today) , but "there's" + <plural noun phrase> should really be characterized, in current English, as merely informal/colloquial, rather than nonstandard. Millions of people (like me) who wouldn't use "there is two people at the door" are entirely happy with "there's two people at the door". So the two versions differ not only in emphasis and/or formality, but also (for many of us) in standardness.

If Arnold is entirely happy with it, it must be standard, right? Seriously, I think I agree with him, but it might not be clear what we agree about. What does it mean to say that something is "informal" but "standard"? And how can we tell whether it's true?

Well, informal here means something like "Not formal or ceremonious; casual; ... more appropriate for use in the spoken language than in the written language". And nonstandard means something like "Associated with a language variety used by uneducated speakers or socially disfavored groups". So Arnold is saying that phrases like "there's too many cooks" are now commonly found in the speech of educated Americans from all strata of society, and also in casual kinds of writing like email, blog entries and informal essays. In contrast, a phrase like "there is too many cooks" remains the sort of thing that educated Americans from higher socioeconomic classes tend not to use, except as a self-conscious gesture towards a kind of language not natural to them.

To investigate this, we could do a sociolinguistic survey, either by asking people for their reactions (though these are often untrustworthy), or by looking at their actual patterns of usage. It's possible that someone has done this -- if I find out about it, I'll add a reference here. But as Yogi Berra once said, "you can observe a lot just by watching." And the indexed web makes it possible to do quite a bit of linguistic watching from the comfort of your computer.

Google News this morning gave me 36 examples of the string "there's several". All but four of these were in informal contexts like quotes, transcripts or blogs, and many if not most of them seem to come from the kinds of speakers whose usage defines what is "standard" in American English. For example:

...there's several downtown high rises that are windowless... [Peter Whoriskey, Washington Post reporter, in a PBS Newshour transcript]
There's several things.
[Colorado Congressman Joel Hefley, in a Western Skies interview transcript]
I mean, I think there's several reasons the presidents say they look at it.
[Gene Bartow, basketball coach (formerly UCLA, now UAB), quoted in the Memphis Commercial Appeal]
There's several things we would not have to do and it still would be a very nice place to live.
[Blake Robbins, vice president for work-force development at the Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce, quoted in The Decatur Daily]
There's several individual properties that have been recommended as eligible and a couple of districts
[Joni Jordan, grants coordinator for Conway, SC, quoted in the Myrtle Beach Sun News]
When you go into middle schools, maybe they have a few vending machines, but in high schools there's several walls of those big Coke and Pepsi machines
[Margo Wootan, director of nutritional policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, quoted in the NYT]

By comparison, Google News gives us only 2 genuine examples of "there is several", perhaps created by misguided copy editors uncontracting "there's".

This contractional contrast is not because journalistic sources normally contract "there is" 95% of the time. If we ask Google News this morning about "there is a difference", we get 721 hits, compared to 652 for "there's a difference", for a contraction rate of 652/(721+652) = 47%.

So far, so good -- "there's several" occurs fairly often in current journalism, but overwhelmingly in quotations, transcripts or casual writing, while "there is several" is a great deal rarer. This is just what we expect if Arnold is right.

We can come at this from another direction, based on counts from the web as a whole. Contraction rates in the pattern "there is a ___ difference", are quite different depending on what adjective is plugged in. The counts suggest (unsuprisingly) that contraction in general is commoner in informal contexts:

there's a big difference
there is a big difference
there's a large difference
there is a large difference
there's a considerable difference
there is a considerable difference

(A side note: The three search engines all show the same trend, but the ratios as well as the counts are quite different in some cases. It would be interesting to try to figure out which of the obvious factors are most responsible for this: differences in what parts of the web are indexed; differences in how duplicates and "black hat" sites are screened out; differences in how hits are counted/estimated; etc.)

When we look at the pattern "there ___ several", limiting the choice to (contracted or uncontracted) is and are, we see that the plural is much more likely to be chosen than the singular, even in Google Groups (which indexes a large archive of newsgroup posts). The singular seems at least as likely to be chosen in journalistic sources as in the web at large:

  there's several there is several
is/'s ratio
there're several there are several
are/'re ratio
plural/singular ratio
Google News
Google Groups

However, when the singular is chosen, it's much more likely to be in the contracted form, even compared to relatively informal sequences where singular agreement would be expected, like "there's a big difference". This effect appears to be somewhat larger in newsgroups, and overwhelming in the sources indexed by Google News.

Again, this is all consistent the view that "there's" + <plural noun phrase> is now informal/colloquial in current (American?) English, but not nonstandard, while "there is" + <plural noun phrase> remains nonstandard.

This leaves me with many questions. Some are specific to this case: What's the geographical story? What's the history? Is there a similar situation for any other examples of "is" with plural subjects? Others questions are more general: what do patterns like this tell us about what linguistic knowledge and how it's learned and used?

It's clear that there are somewhat similar patterns with here and where:

Here's a few thoughts for Stuart James to ponder, if he's waiting by the phone for the Mayne board to ring and ask him to run the demerged global pharmaceuticals business. [Sydney Morning Herald (link)]
Where's all the stories about breaking curfew and carousing until all hours of the night? [The Journal News (upstate NY -- link)]

The example from Australia suggests that this is not just an American pattern. Note by the way that with where, main verb is seems to work differently from the progressive auxiliary is: for me, "where's the kids going?" seems worse than "where's the kids?", and "*where's they going?" seems more non-standard than the form with to be deleted ("where they going?").

I don't know much about the history. I'll observe for now that it seems to be an old story to use "is" and "are" promiscuously in there-sentences with plural logical subjects. A few minutes poking around turned up Randle Holme (1627-1699) "An Accademie of Armory OR A Store House of Armory & Blazon Containeing all thinges Borne in Coates of Armes Both Forraign and Domestick. With the termes of Art used in each Science", which is chock full of examples of both kinds. Here is a small sample of the many instances in this work of the string "there is several":

THE next is the Cross Moline, a Cross both in nature and shape far different from any as yet presented to your view, from which form there is several others derived, yet of a contrary term in Blazon, as in the examples following.

Small Water Yarrow groweth much after the same manner, having five or six joints in the stem, at each of them there is several fine small green and winged leaves ...

Heads or husks of Flowers, are those things, out of which Flowers grow, of which there is several shapes, forms and fashions ...

THere is several things belonging to an Horse, and Horsemanship, ...

They have several names according to their office, and imployment: and there is several mixt kinds of them, being Mungrells.

This is called an Ape, a Iack-an-Apes, of which there is several sorts· all of them being of a sad brown, or Mouse-colour.

and a sample of the roughly equal number of hits for "there are several":

There are several other ways of bearing of Pales, both charged and otherwise, but in regard they are in every respect answerable to the Bend ...

THere are several Crosses alike in shew, yet are different in name; and others are very near in Name, yet far different in shew and form ...

THERE are several other partitions of Feilds, by which the Coat of Arms is Blazoned, but in a more obscure way ...

WE shall in the next place proceed to things produced in the Element of Air, in which there are several and various Products, which are born in Coats of Arms, and are such as follow, with their like.

There are several sorts of stones besides these; for in strickness stones are no more then earth hardned, and the softest is called Greet or Grit, which being ground small becomes Sand; being more grosser or courser we call gravel.

Some of the variation is in very similar pairs of examples, e.g.

There is two sorts of Lillyes, the one groweth with turned leaves half round much after the nature of the turn Cap: the other with leaves upright after the Tulipa, but sharper at the stalk ...

Baths, are Springs of Water in which Sick and Infirm people wash and bath themselves: of which there are two sorts the hot Bath, and the Cold bath.

As for the psycholinguistic questions, they'll have to wait for another time.

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 1, 2005 06:58 PM