If you’re one of my freelancers — and, I’m sorry if you are, I’m probably an asshole to deal with — then you’re familiar with one of my pet peeves in writing. You’ve seen it, and you know what I’m talking about because it elicits a certain response, a response not unlike what would happen if I were trying to pass a living human baby through the length of my intestinal tract.
That pet peeve is the construction, “There is.”
As in, “There is only one reason to go to the zoo, and it is to get high off of bat guano.”
Or, “There are four men at my front door, and none of them are wearing pants.”
Now, first, let me say that this is a pet peeve because it’s something I used to do. Most of the things that rub me the wrong way in people’s writings are pitfalls into which I’ve tumbled many-a-time, dig? The only reason I’m jumping up and down, flapping my arms like an imbecile, is so you don’t fall in the same hole again and again. I’m marking the path is all. I’m the yellow sign on the bathroom floor: Cuidado! Verboten! Slippery When Wet!
So. “There is.” What the hell is wrong with that? Nothing, right? Bzzt. No. Here’s what’s wrong with it: it’s goddamn lazy. You don’t know it’s lazy, but half the stuff we do, we do because it’s easy, not because it’s correct — it’s like coasting gently through a stop sign. You do it because you’re too lazy to expend the effort to, y’know, stop the car with that enervating tap of your foot. It’s not right. But you do it. I do it. We all do it. Lazy.
“There is” as a construction is just like that. Outside of “there is” being a generally bland way to communicate, what’s the issue? The issue is, you can always say it better. You can always say it more clearly, more evocatively, more actively.
“There is a human baby in my intestinal tract.” Can we write that in a more interesting, more direct way? Sure we can. Let’s try:
“A human baby is in my intestinal tract.” Or, “My intestinal tract is home to a human baby.” Or, “I’ve got a human baby crawling around in my guts, and he’s a grabby little fucker, and — oh, oh no, I think he just threw up in there. This is really awkward.”
Of course, exceptions to the rule exist (or, put more weakly, “There are exceptions to the rule” — see what I did there? See?). Dialogue, for one. People do speak this way, and they say the “there is” construction fairly frequently, so it’s not odd to slap it into dialogue. Also, if you’re going for a very conversational tone, it can work there, too. But if you want flavor, action, drama, or poetic intensity, don’t rely on the “there is” construction.
I mean, hey, if I’ve yelled at you about it, don’t feel bad. Some professional, even popular, writers use it. Frequently. Joe R. Lansdale is one of my Writing Heroes (I’ll have to do a post on this at some point), and his latest book (Leather Maiden, buy it) uses “there is” frequently. All the time, actually. And I love his books regardless. But understand, every time I read those two words paired together, Baby Jesus loses a feather from his wings. Er, I think that’s how it works? Right? Anybody? High-fives?