“There Is A” Vs. “There Is The”

There is a method to this madness!

The English articles a, an, and the can be tricky for students to learn. Teachers can spend quite a bit of time teaching lower-level students when to use these articles, only to have the “rules” thrown back in their faces when a sentence begins with “there” and the Be verb. When do we say There is a + noun, and is There is the + noun ever correct?

There Is A + Noun

This is a common English sentence pattern that is used to describe things (especially when followed with a location). For example, think of this sentence: There is a cat on the sofa. If a speaker says this, both the speaker and listener are probably looking at the sofa or a picture of it. The tricky thing for students is that this situation (where we can see the noun and/or we know which noun we’re talking about) usually calls for the definite article the. The noun following the preposition even takes the (the sofa), so why is it a cat?

For one thing, there in this case is an indefinite (or “empty”) subject, so an indefinite article (a or an) following it does make sense. It is also one of those sentence patterns that has been around for ages and is unlikely to change. I always make a point of teaching this pattern to my students since it doesn’t follow the normal article rules. It’s one of those exceptions that students should memorize to make their lives easier.

Examples:

  • There is a school on the corner of 5th and Main.
  • There is an orange on my desk.
  • There are books on the shelf.

There Is The + Noun

Is there is ever possible with the? While I was writing our new Articles – Beginner lesson, my coworker, Tara, pointed out that the was possible in some of my examples. We then had a long and interesting discussion on when there is the could be used. (If you can think of any other instances, please add them in the Comments section below!)

If you are answering the question “Where is the (noun)?”, then “There’s the (noun)” is natural. We can also use it for emphasis.

Examples:

  • A: Where’s the red pen?
    B: There’s the red pen. (pointing to it)
  • Oh, there are the books I was looking for!
  • There’s the bus! We’ve been waiting forever.

Conclusion

So what should we teach our students? For lower-level students, I’d recommend teaching the There is a + noun pattern. Point out that it is almost always followed by a preposition phrase with the. Teaching There is the + noun to lower-level students might result in confusion and mistakes, so I wouldn’t do that unless a student specifically asks about that case. But for higher-level students, teaching exceptions to rules is helpful and can lead to interesting grammar discussions. I wouldn’t hesitate to bring up There is the + noun to my advanced students.

Practice

Try our NEW Grammar Practice Worksheets lesson on Articles – Beginner! We also have an Articles – Intermediate lesson in that section.

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