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Michael IELTS Band 9
Professional Teacher
There is/There are : common problems for students

I am writing a language learning article about this issue and I would like feedback and experience on the common difficulties that students from different native language backgrounds have, and common mistakes that they make.  

These are my initial thoughts:

a) "it is" - this is probably the most common mistake across language backgrounds, in my experience

b) "is" - in some languages, there is no need for an explicit subject 

c) "there has" - a mistake I have heard from some French speakers (presumably a more direct translation of "il y a")

I can't recall any patterns of mistakes among Italian and German students, perhaps because their equivalent constructions are used similarly. 

I know that some languages omit the verb "to be" in cases where we would need "there is", in English, and so students are tempted to reach for the more familiar "it's".

Generally, I find that even many advanced students are not confident using more complex tense forms e.g. there have been, there could have been, there used to be, etc.

Thanks for reading and all ideas will be appreciated.

Aug 25, 2016 6:31 AM
Comments · 4

I do not know if you are expecting answers from native English speakers or students' opinions as well. I have not struggled with the use of THERE IS and THERE ARE. If I am not wrong:

1. THERE IS - Singular in Spanish it means HAY There is a sofa in my dinning room.

2. THERE ARE - Plural in Spanish it means HAY There are four chairs in my dinning room.

3. IT IS - (Pronoun + verb) For singular things / animals in Spanish it means ESTO ES (In general terms, as IT IS as many other uses, I think)

Sometimes, I get confused with the use of IT as in Spanish we tend to omit it. For instance in the sentence: It is said that .... I would naturally omit the use of it, in this sentence. 

I am looking forward to reading your article!

Edited: About FAMILY I have always been said to consider it as a singular noun, so The family is .... I guess in exams we are expected to write it in singular, so this is the way we are taught to use the word family.

August 25, 2016

I have heard and extraordinary amount of misuse of "there/it is/are" among native speakers of English in interviews, advertisements and conversations. Add to that a historic disagreement between some Englishes about whether some nouns are group nouns or count nouns (e.g., The family is vs. The family are) ... and I can only imagine how confused a learner might be.

I believe I've heard a tendency towards regularizing to the singular from native speakers, slowly eliminating "there are", but that's a debate for linguistic historians and sociologists.

I have tended to have Spanish students, to whom I stress the "this exists" sense of "there is/are", and that seems to help this particular group of learners.   Example: There is an earth = Earth exists, and not Necessarily "Earth is there".

The use of the dummy subject and complex verb phrases are habitually more difficult because they combine conditional, complex past, and/or idiomatic verb phrases ("used to do".. vs "am used to doing", etc.). These tenses are only necessary in certain situations, so they are also less commonly heard, meaning students are less frequently exposed to them. 

August 25, 2016

Another USA view:

1) I have not heard "the family are". For me, that is weird and wrong. Good grief, let's not overthink things!

2) There's three fences in my garden. I have heard this construction from time to time and I may have even said it myself but I still consider it substandard English and it is just plain wrong/uneducated if written that way. Not at all a bad mistake for a foreigner given all the other challenges of language learning, but surely natives can do better than to accept this a new norm.

August 25, 2016

Ok thanks Rebecca. Your advice is useful.

In my experience, "there's + plural" in informal conversation and writing has become widely accepted. I do it.

e.g. There's three fences in my garden.

In the UK at least, most people are still strongly intolerant of "there is + plural". Even in informal English, if I used "there is + plural", I would consider it a mistake

e.g. There is three fences in my garden.  

Would modern US speakers consider this acceptable?

"The family are" is sometimes an option in UK English but because "the family is" is also always acceptable, my advice to students is to use the singular in every case, to minimise potential mistakes. 

August 25, 2016
Michael IELTS Band 9
Language Skills
English, French, German, Italian, Spanish
Learning Language
German, Italian