Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
A few weeks ago I wrote an article reminding writers to check their sentences to be sure the intended subject of a sentence was the actual subject. I’d borrowed a headline from an online news source that scrambled the sentence, attaching actions to the sentence’s subject that were unintended and impossible.
I’ve got another caution for you today, also from the media. This time, however, from a TV ad.
An insurance company twice uses the line There’s donuts in the conference room.
Like many others, I love donuts. But this sentence is not grammatically correct, and may lead those who see the ad and hear the wording to think that such language is correct and acceptable.
Is it acceptable?
There’s is a contraction for there is or there has, not there are. A sentence that combines there is with a plural is not correct.
Yet—and don’t we love those exceptions—we are talking fiction and if a character would say such a thing, then you can include the phrasing in dialogue. And that’s exactly what this commercial has done.
In that case, why write an article about it?
I mention this misuse of there’s because it’s one I often see in manuscripts. And not only in dialogue. While characters may say and think there’s when it should be there are (or there’re—and yes, that one is acceptable in fiction as well), that’s the only time the incorrect wording should be used in fiction. (Character thoughts and self-directed dialogue can reflect this same usage, if it’s what the character would think.) The narrator who is not obviously a character revealing his or her word choices and peculiarities should not use this incorrect wording.
So you wouldn’t want to start a chapter—
At five ten that afternoon, after the final customer races out and the doors are locked, the bank is cleaned out by bandits, and there’s half a dozen employees tied up in the manager’s office who’ll be grilled about the heist for weeks.
Yes, you could rewrite this to cut the use of there is or there are, but let me have my bad example for a moment.
There’s for there are is often accepted in speech because the speaker may change direction midthought. Yet writers have the opportunity to edit their words; the word there’s, combined with a plural, should not show up in your stories unless a character is thinking or saying it on purpose. Don’t worry about it too much as you’re writing, but do check your use of there’s when you edit, especially if you tend to use there’s rather than there are. Or instead of changing there’s to there are, use an editing pass as an opportunity to rewrite and do away with there is and there are altogether.
Is this a prescriptive vs. descriptive issue, using there’s rather than there are? Maybe it will be one day. Today it simply comes off as wrong.
As a fiction writer, you have to consider the grammatically correct as well as the commonly used and find a way to make both work in the same piece of writing. I have no doubt that you can successfully blend the two. Just be on the lookout for occasions where one option would clearly be a better choice and when one option should be no choice at all.
Be mindful of what you see and hear and then repeat in your writing: the words used in the media and in other cultural or societal settings may be evolving but not yet fully accepted; words may be used incorrectly on purpose, to prove some point, and so only fit the immediate circumstances; or a particular usage may just be plain wrong, a mistake of a copywriter. Use what you know to be correct or use phrases as your character would use them.
A short and simple one today: be on the lookout for there’s.
If you’ve got a comment on the use of there’s for there are (or any other wording that might be caught up in the correct vs. acceptable dilemma), we’d love to hear it.