Do we say “There is a lot…” or “There are a lot of…”? This question was put to me recently by a student who noted that “lot” is the first noun after a verb. In theory, the verb should be singular with “a lot of”, because it is a singular “lot”. Comparing “There are a lot of apples.” and “There is a lot of apples.”, this sounds incorrect, however. Why?
When should “to be” agree with the first noun?
With a sentence covering states, the noun typically agrees with the first noun, such as There is a car. or They are rocks. The verb “to be” describes the noun, and therefore agrees with whether the noun is singular or plural. This can become confusing, however, when “to be” describes a singular noun that groups a plural: nouns such as couple, pair, group, and crowd may all be followed by plurals, but are treated, grammatically, as singular, as they represent one single unit. Consider that “a couple of people” is one object (a couple), because it combines two separate objects (two people) into one unit. Similarly, “a group of doctors”, “a crowd of onlookers”, “a swarm of bees”. The opposite would be true if we defined a group by a plural number or an adverb expressing a plural: “many chairs” and “twelve nurses”, for example, express plurals that are not grouped into one unit.
Usually, the first noun defines the quantity (and tells us “how many”), and with sentences describing states the verb “to be” will agree with the first noun.
- There is a group of librarians waiting for you.
- There are hundreds of clowns coming.
Why doesn’t this work for “There are a lot of / There is a lot”?
The ambiguity here comes from “a lot of” appearing to be a noun phrase when it’s actually not used in the same way. It is used not as a grouping noun but as a quantifying adverb, like “many”. While a singular verb is appropriate with nouns that define the plural into a singular group, “a lot of” refers to a quantity rather than a grouped unit – modifying the verb as “many” would. So the verb agrees with the noun that “a lot of” qualifies, rather than “a lot”. We can therefore have either “are a lot of” or “is a lot of” depending on the noun. Mostly, we will use “There are a lot of” with countable nouns, when we discuss plurals, and “There is a lot of” with uncountable nouns.
- There are a lot of apples.
- There is a lot of meat.
It’s deceptive, but a good example of how exceptions to some of the simple rules of English can work – because words can be used for functions that are not what they immediately appear to be.