Wednesday, June 18, 2008

There's as an existential quantifier

Recently (or maybe this is an example of the recency illusion) I've noticed more and more people using "there's" with plural items. This is not to say I just heard it yesterday, but I remember not having ever heard it before, say, 5-10 years ago. Clearly it was around earlier, because I overheard it in an episode of Friends from their first season, which I believe was 1992 or 1993. A quick google search turns up a movie called "For Every Man, There's Two Women", which dates from 1984. And, in fact, a search of Shakespeare turns up 3 hits (e.g., "There's two or three of us have seen strange sights" Julius Caesar, I, iii). I was, however, unable to find an example in Chaucer, so it could be a mere 500-600 years old. Clearly this is an example of the recency illusion, the tendency of people to believe things they have just heard (or more often just noticed) are new to the world.

I believe what's going on here is not merely laziness. Prescriptivists love to jump all over linguistic innovations, pointing out how they are vague, lazy, or just downright immoral. In many instances, these critics couldn't be any more wrong. Most often linguistic innovations arise because people have a desire to express themselves, and want a better and more succinct (and often LESS vague) way to say what they're thinking. A good example of this is "like," as in "John saw Steve hit Mary and was like 'What the hell?!'" Critics would probably have this utterance rephrased as "...and said, "What the hell," or "...and thought, What the hell. The problem occurs when John neither said nor thought this. The use of the word "like" conveys an emotion via a descriptive phrase, and there is simply no other way to do this in the English language. I'm a very conservative like user, because to me it is marked and sometimes, when used in excess, the subject of contempt. However, I do use "like" in all situations like the above (of course this is in addition to the "normal" uses of like as just demonstrated), because it's the best way of expressing myself.

So why would someone say "There's two pencils on the table"? I would wager not because they're stupid or lazy. I think the most likely possibility is that the contraction "there's" has ceased to be a true contraction, and instead has become a sort of existential quantifier that signifies "There exists some x," where x is a state. In the above example, the state is "two pencils are on the table." Many more people would say "There's two pencils on the table" than would say "Two pencils is on the table," so clearly there is a perceptual difference. People aren't looking at "there's" as a verb, but rather a mathematical or logical operator. Now, this works fine in a predicate logic framework, but I wouldn't want to try to explain it in current syntactic theory. I'm sure someone could, though, so if you're so inclined, please share. Also, if someone can antedate there's with plural argument to before Shakespeare, that would be interesting to see.


Battle Damaged Kanka said...


Are you aware of any articles on this topic?

linguistlessons said...

Unfortunately I don't think anyone has commented on this issue in print. I should note, too, that I've come to believe that it's not just "there's" that people use in this way; I've definitely heard people say things like "There is five". Case in point -- on the show "Life", the main character Charlie Crews overhears another character saying "There was six, there is five, there could just as easily be four." He listens to this line repeatedly, and he and other characters repeat it througout the following episode, so it's clearly not any kind of speech error, but instead a conscious decision on the part of the writers.

Battle Damaged Kanka said...

Interesting. I'll have to start jotting down instances of this as well.

Anonymous said...

There's a linguistic paper called: “There’s bears back there” Plural existentials and vernacular universals in (Quebec) English, by James A. Walker which acknowledges that "there’s is a lexicalized form with its own set of constraints...[it] has become a single lexical unit which is inserted into syntactic structure whenever an existential is required, regardless of the number of the subject".
Moreover, you may be interested that he cites examples of singular agreement with plural references in constructions with existential there from as early as Anglo Saxon was being used:

(2) a. þær wæs syx hund manna. (The Blickling Homilies 203, 27 [971 A.D.])
‘There was six hundred men.’ (Visser 1963: 73)

and later:

There’s two crowns for thee, play.
(Marlowe, The Jew of Malta IV, v [1592]; Visser 1963: 74).

However, for reasons I don’t understand, to call this use of there's an existential quantifier is wrong (I asked my university lecturer today as I wanted to include it in my paper).

linguistlessons said...

Very interesting, thanks for the reference. As I've learned more about semantics I've come to realize that indeed my original characterization of "there's" as an existential quantifier isn't quite correct. But I'm still very interested in learning more about it. The Anglo-Saxon citation especially is intriguing.