I recently had an email from a reader writing for his fantasy story website that raised an interesting point; the writer had a statement saying someone needed to check “how many guards are there” and was told that “how many guards there are” was the correct form. The writer thought both were correct, so asked what the difference was. It is true, from a neutral perspective both “how many there are” or “how many are there” can be correct, but they have different uses. Here’s why:
Question Inversion for Stative Sentences
In this context to check “how many guards there are” is the correct form because it is a stative sentence. As a question, it would be inverted: “How many guards are there?” As indirect speech, however, questions are not inverted: “Please check how many guards there are.” This means (in simplified form!) that the verb comes after the subject in a reported question.
This would the same for other reported questions (stative or otherwise):
- “What is the time?” / He asked what the time is.
- “Where did the car go?” She asked where the car went.
“There are” vs “Are There”
When we use “There is/are” to form a statement, “there” indicates the state (there or not, a bit like to be or not). In this use, it functions like a subject. So we have “How many are there?” but “He asked how many there are.”
However, “there” can also be used to indicate a location. It fits into a question in the same position (“How many are there?”) but does not behave as a subject when we report speech – it behaves, instead, as a location. So the way we invert this question becomes a consideration of what information is being asked for. This may only become clear in the right context.
- “You can see the guards. How many guards are there?” (In existence.)
- “Some of the guards have moved to the gate. How many guards are there?” (In that location.)
They look the same hear, in question form, because the stative question is inverted. In reported speech, however, it is not inverted, while the location question’s word order does not change.
- “I can see some guards – I’ll check how many there are.”
- “Some of the guards have moved to the gate. I’ll check to see how many are there.”
And so, from one question form we can actually have two different reported speech forms that are both correct – in the right context!
This is a difficult and very specific point, so please let me know below if the explanation isn’t clear – or you have any questions!