'Are' vs. 'is' writ large


“There are a variety of Medicare supplement plans on the market.”

For an editor, this is not a difficult sentence. We see stuff like this all the time and don’t blink an eye. But sometimes things that shouldn’t trip me up trip me up. Things I’ve known for years — things I’ve researched and confirmed and committed to memory — seem to fall right out of my brain.

And so it was when I found myself staring at that sentence, which appeared in an article I was editing recently, and stopped dead in my tracks. “There are a variety”? “There is a variety”? For some reason, I couldn’t remember despite having researched the matter multiple times in the past.

To get to the answer, there are a couple of issues to consider. One is whether “variety” is singular, which would require the singular verb “is,” or whether it’s plural, requiring the verb “are.”

The second issue is whether “variety” governs the verb at all. Could “plans” be the subject of the verb? If so, there’s no question the verb should be “are,” as in “There are plans on the market.”

Finally, there’s a question of whether “existential there” changes the equation. In my recent column, I start with that one.


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